Is the New Testament Historically Reliable? External Evidence
We have already discussed the first test of historical reliability, The Bibliographical Test. So, if you haven’t read that, do so first. In my opinion, it presents the strongest case for reliability.
Now, I’m turning my attention to the second test which is the “external evidence test”. You’ll notice that I have skipped the “internal evidence test”. I’m skipping the internal evidence test because that would require me to take every apparent contradiction in the New Testament and explain why they aren’t contradictions. Which would be fun, but each apparent contradiction would require its own article, which is probably how I will address them in time. For now, let’s look at some external evidence that attests to the reliability of the New Testament.
- Eusebius. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, recalls the writings of Papias, who was the Bishop of Hierapolis (AD 60-130). He says Papias taught that Mark wrote down Peter’s eyewitness testimony in his own gospel. This means we have a very early (AD 60-130) external source (the writings of Papias) corroborating Mark’s Gospel. Papias also mentions Matthews Gospel, specifically that it was written in the “Hebrew tongue”.
- Irenaeus. Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of John. In AD 180 Irenaeus states in one of his letters that Jesus had given them the Gospel “fourfold”. In no uncertain terms Irenaeus is claiming at least two things:
- As early as AD 180 the Church recognized the four Gospels we recognize today.
- As early as AD 180 the Church recognized the four Gospels as the Word of God.
- Clement of Rome. In First Clement 13, Clement references the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as transmitting the words of Jesus accurately.
- Tatian. Between AD 150-200, so about a century from the events described in the New Testament, Tatian gathers the four Gospels into one document called the Diatessaron, which literally means “through four”. This was used in Syria for two centuries. Here we have a very early collection of the four Gospels we still use today.
Eight Legal Tests
Lee Strobel, Master of Studies in Law from Yale, set out to see if the biographies of Jesus would hold up in the court of law, so he put them to 8 tests commonly used in evaluating a defendant’s testimony in court. Lee was an atheist at the time.
- The Intention Test. The authors of the Gospel clearly intended their writings to be taken as historical, not simply stories meant to convey wise stories of a wise religious leader. This much is obvious from Luke’s Gospel:
“Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.” Luke 1:1-4
2. The Ability Test. The may have intended to write history, but were they capable of it? Matthew and John were disciples and therefore eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. Mark was writing Peter’s eyewitness testimony, and Luke was a close associate of Paul and the other Apostles. In short, yes.
3. The Character Test. Maybe they intended to write history, were able to write history, but still lied. Here’s a few reasons to trust the character of the authors:
a. Their writings teach a high standard of moral living.
b. They would gain nothing by making this up. In fact, they were punished, even killed.
c. There are a number of embarrassing details included in the Gospels. If you were making up a story, you wouldn’t create an embarrassing detail.
4. The Consistency Test. As I already mentioned, I cannot detail every supposed, or alleged inconsistent detail between the Gospels. Skeptics have raised numerous objections on this point and each objection would deserve its own full-length article. Suffice it to say that I believe, as did atheist Lee Strobel, that the Gospels pass this test.
5. The Bias Test. We already covered why it is unlikely that the New Testament authors were liars, but even if they were biased, it wouldn’t have affected the historical claims. It is conceivable that they bent certain theological teachings to their own biases, but not historical claims.
6. The Cover-Up Test. When someone lies, or tries to cover their tracks, or someone else’s tracks, they hide embarrassing details and things that are hard to explain. But again, the Gospels don’t hide the embarrassing details, or hard teachings like Jesus not knowing the time of his Second coming, or Jesus saying “God, why have you forsaken me?” These hard facts to reconcile theologically, but the authors of the New Testament don’t shy away from recording them (and others).
7. The Corroboration Test. This test looks at external evidence that corroborates the story. I’m about to present some of those, and I already have to some satisfaction.
8. The Adverse Witness Test. This test looks at what critics have to say. This is highly informative as to whether or not the truth is being told. If a critic of your position admits you’re telling the truth, well, you most likely are. Early Jewish sources say that Jesus was a sorcerer that led people astray and that his disciples stole his body. Implicitly, they admit that Jesus was doing miracles and that his tomb was empty. His enemies corroborate his story.
Non-Christian sources that corroborate the New Testament include:
- Tacitus. Tacitus was a first century Roman historian that mentioned Jesus being crucified by Pontius Pilate and that Christianity was spreading.
- Suetonius. Chief secretary to Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), Suetonius records the expulsion of the Jews from Rome (mentioned in Acts) and the persecution of Christians who were “addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition” (the Resurrection).
- Josephus (AD 37-100). Josephus makes numerous statements that corroborate both the Old and New Testaments, but for our purposes, especially Jesus.
Here are some interesting archaeological findings that corroborate the New Testament.:
- Early Burial Sight. In 1945, two ossuaries were found with Christian inscriptions. They would have been in use before AD 50 — less than 20 years after Jesus’ death.
- Jesus’ Court. The court where Jesus was tried by Pilate was discovered recently.
- Pool of Bethesda. Recently discovered, corroborating the New Testament claim of its existence.
- The Nazareth Decree. This one is cool. A stone was found with a decree from Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) saying that no graves were to be disturbed. Anybody found digging up a body would face capital punishment. Before this, a person would be fined, so why capital punishment all of a sudden? To prevent another revolution based on resurrection claims! This decree corroborates the empty tomb.
There’s a lot of other archaeological findings that corroborate the New Testament, but these should suffice to show what I mean.
The New Testament passes the external evidence test. I conclude that the New Testament is historically reliable. If you are going to dismiss the New Testament, you are going to have to do so on different grounds. Perhaps, theological grounds. I’ll tackle the theological reliability next.
 This article draws heavily from a book I HIGHLY recommend: Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Thomas Nelson. 2017. Kindle. 75 – 89.