The historical accuracy of the New Testament

Bible

Another common argument used against christian belief is that the New Testament is unreliable and historically inaccurate. The argument focuses on a number of apparent inconsistencies in the gospel accounts, which, it is said, make the accounts unbelievable.

Is there any substance to these claims?

Not really inconsistent

We can rule out a number of things that may appear to us to be inconsistent:

  • The gospels are not necessarily chronological, so differences in the sequence of events are not generally an issue.
  • Jesus would have given the same teachings many times, so differences in wording are not necessarily an indication of a problem.
  • On some occasions in the gospels and Acts, it is clear that the author is summarising what someone said rather than necessarily quoting them word for word.

More of a problem

Many apparent inconsistencies have been pointed out. I will outline several of the most discussed cases, as an indication of how christians might approach them.

Birth stories

Jesus’ birth is recorded only in Matthew and Luke, and the two stories have some major differences, though no clearcut contradictions. Critics have suggested the following anomalies:

  • Both gospels agree that Jesus’ birth took place during the life of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. However Luke says Jesus was born during a census conducted by Quirinius, and this is known to have taken place in 6 CE. Most scholars think that Luke got it wrong, but some scholars point out that the correct translation is that the census took place before the one we know about. Some critics say that it is unlikely that both Joseph and Mary would have been required to travel the 100 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
  • The genealogies of Jesus given in the two gospels differ significantly. Some say they are the separate genealogies of Mary and Joseph, but this seems impossible. It seems more likely that the genealogies were never intended to be totally factual (Matthew’s is neatly divided into 3 groups of fourteen), but symbolic.
  • It is possible, but difficult, to reconcile Luke’s statement that Mary and Joseph returned home to Nazareth soon after his birth with Matthew’s story`of their trip to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempts to kill Jesus.
  • Some features of the stories, though not contradictory, are doubted by many scholars: the virgin birth, the story of the wise men and the slaughter by Herod of the children in Bethlehem. I see no reason to doubt the virgin birth, and the other stories could be factual, though could also be symbolic.

Overall, there is not much for christians to worry about here. Those who believe the Bible is without error can plausibly believe that everything can be harmonised. Those who don’t can accept what the scholars say without much problem.

Bethlehem and Nazareth

Bethlehem and Nazareth both feature prominently in the gospels, but some have claimed that neither place existed as a village in Jesus’ time.

  • Archaeologists have found little that could identify the town of Bethlehem in the first century, leading a few to argue that it didn’t exist at that time. However the exact location and size of Bethlehem at that time is unclear, so it may not be likely that much would be found. And some early traditions say that Jesus was born “near” Bethlehem, which may indicate a region rather than a town. I don’t think this question has been resolved yet, but I have seen few scholars who make anything of it.
  • Nazareth is a clear case. It wasn’t long ago that sceptics claimed that Nazareth didn’t exist either, pointing to the lack of archaeological evidence or contemporary references. However historians believe it was a small agricultural village, and recently archaeological evidence of a small farming settlement has been uncovered. The matter is now considered settled – Nazareth did exist.

These examples show the folly of arguing from a lack of archeological evidence.

Gadara or Gerasa?

The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) tell the story of an exorcism by Jesus which resulted in a herd of pigs rushing into the sea. However there are some notable differences in their accounts:

  • Mark (5:1-20) and Luke (8:26-39) describe the exorcism of one man, whereas Matthew (8:28-34) mentions two. Scholars generally conclude that Matthew has altered this detail to make some point, although it is possible that there were two men and Mark and Luke only describe what happened to one of them.
  • Mark and Luke also differ from Matthew on the location – they say the territory of the Gerasenes (i.e. the country around the city of Gerasa) whereas Matthew says it was the territory around Gadara, a quite different city. But the matter is complicated by the fact that some ancient texts have the opposite locations or even the territory of the Gergesenes.
  • Both cities are located some distance from the Sea of Galilee, which some claim is a clear error. But since the gospels say it was in the territory, not the city, this is not a correct claim. But the different locations in the texts remain to be explained. Perhaps they were all originally one or the other, but there was a copying error early on and this has been carried forwards – this seems quite possible since there are so many variant readings. But as they stand, the accounts differ, although it hardly seems like a major problem.

Jesus’ last week

Jesus’ last week unfolds slightly differently in John, when compared to the synoptic gospels.

  • In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’ last week begins with his entry into Jerusalem and confrontation with the temple authorities. But in John, the temple incident is way back at the beginning of his ministry. Some scholars say that there were two such incidents, but most scholars believe that John has placed the story out of chronological order to make the point that Jesus’ whole ministry would replace the temple sacrifices. Ancient biographies like the gospels often grouped events thematically rather than chronologically.
  • John’s chronology is also said to differ later in the week. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus’ last Passover meal with his disciples was on Thursday and he was crucified on Friday, but it is said that in John both the meal and the crucifixion were a day earlier. There are also some other minor differences in the events.
  • Again, the scholars are divided. Some say there is a genuine discrepancy, with John changing the days and reporting different details to make theological points. But others argue that Jesus had two meals with his disciples (not uncommon during Passover), which explains some of the differences in the accounts, and that John also says Jesus was crucified on Friday, if his times and dates are understood correctly.

So there seems little to be concerned about here also. Both Biblical inerrantists and other christians can explain the gospel stories adequately. (For a discussion of each view, see chapter 2 of Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted, and Ben Witherington’s critique.)

The resurrection stories

The resurrection stories in the four gospels, plus a reference in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, present a variety of stories, with details that seem difficult to harmonise. For example:

  • How many women went to the tomb that morning, and who were they?
  • Were there one or two people in Jesus’ tomb when visited, and were they angels or men?
  • Who did Jesus appear to, where, and in what order?

Scholars are not fazed by these differences.They say that when witnesses agree on the main facts but differ on the details, it means they have not collaborated or copied, and the truth of the main facts is more assured. And so most scholars believe that the story of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus are historical, whether they believe Jesus was really resurrected or not. They find it less important whether the details are all correct, and many believe the events were so confusing and unexpected that the disciples memories are unreliable. This is enough for many christians.

Those who believe the Bible is without error have a tougher time trying to harmonise the various accounts, and many scholars say it can’t be done. But New Testament scholar John Wenham has been able to write a convincing account that fits in all the details (see The resurrection). He said it wasn’t necessarily a correct reconstruction, but it showed it could be done – and it was convincing to me.

Summary

It seems to me that the problems with the historical accuracy of the New Testament are sometimes overstated. It is true that there are many unresolved difficulties, and scholars generally think there are genuine errors there. But these apparent errors don’t seriously undermine the historical value of the New Testament, and don’t prevent even sceptical scholars from concluding that we can know a good deal about Jesus.

Those who hold to Biblical inerrancy have a harder time of it. Most discrepancies can be explained, although the explanations may seem strained to many, and I find it difficult to think that every one of them can be resolved reasonably.

I personally think it is safer to accept the scholars’ conclusions as a common basis for discussing with sceptics, while believing that we can trust the New Testament writers for more than the minimum allowed for by the scholars. This allows me to be faithful to the best historical research while not being overly sceptical. It also simplifies discussions with sceptics because it eliminates many of the less important arguments and allows me to focus on what is most important – which can be built on what the mainstream scholars confirm.

Read the whole series

This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.

9 thoughts on “The historical accuracy of the New Testament

  1. If it is fine for a story to be altered for symbolic reasons, then it is okay for a story to be fabricated from the cloth of pagan myths and be labeled as truth. If so much is to be seen as symbolic, then realism as flown out the window, and flown it has.

  2. G’day myrthryn, thanks for dropping bu and commenting.

    “If it is fine for a story to be altered for symbolic reasons, then it is okay for a story to be fabricated from the cloth of pagan myths and be labeled as truth.”

    I wonder on what basis you make this statement? I wonder whether most scholars would agree with you? I would think not.

    Suppose a sober scientific report that had a figure of speech in it, something like: “In deciding how to spend the remaining funds, we were between a rock and a hard place.” I wonder if you would then say: “If it is fine for a report to contain symbolic language, then it is okay for the results to be fabricated and be labeled as truth.”? Obviously not, but why? Because you understand the difference between reporting and metaphor.

    So I suggest you need to understand what the scholars say about how the ancients passed on their stories in an oral culture, and how they wrote their histories and biographies. And then I don’t think you would make a statement like this.

    Contrary to what you say, “so much” is not seen as symbolic, just a few details. That is why the historians say we can know a lot about Jesus with confidence.

    Best wishes.

  3. To be honest as far as I know scientists deliberately avoid this kind of language. I can’t say for sure but when I need to write a paper for uni there are certain guidelines like always writing in passive tense and so on. The idea is to make it as objective and universal as possible. That is not to say you’re incorrect on the general point you’re making. I’d have to book up to make any statement about that.

  4. Yes, for a journal, you are probably right. But in a talk, they might say it. There are probably better examples, but the point remains, as you seem to agree.

  5. Oh I defo agree with your point, though it is worth little given my knowledge on the matter. I’m booking up on sociobiology right now, next up would be the enuma elis and the bible and so on. Anyway, I thought I’d nitpick that because it’s actually quite fundamental to how scientists think I believe. We get – points for putting our graph below our explanation instead of above. It’s all really tedious but you get why you have to do all these tidbits.

  6. Regarding the birth narratives, Kenneth Bailey argues in his excellent book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” that part of the Luke birth narrative has been long misunderstood and it is much more likely based on the Greek, the culture, and the context of the story that they stayed in a guest room at someone’s house instead of an inn. It’s quite interesting.

  7. ‘That is why the historians say we can know a lot about Jesus with confidence.’

    No we can’t. In fact the only thing that can be agreed upon by most scholars in the field is that he was an historical figure and that he was crucified by Pilate.
    There is just no supporting qualified evidence to suggest anything else.

  8. You don’t give any reference for this, and I don’t know any competent scholar who would say this, except for Robert Price.

    EP Sanders lists 11 things that are important and are “almost beyond dispute”, and says there is much more we can know about Jesus – see Is there really a consensus of scholars on historical facts about Jesus?. Other scholars would include more in this list – e.g. drawing on M Grant & NT Wright added three more important items to the list – see Jesus in history. There would be other scholars who would add much more, others who would be less certain, but Sanders’ list seems to be a reasonable “lowest common denominator”.

    Which scholars can you name who only accept the two items you mention?

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