What the scholars tell us about the New Testament

Part of the New Testament

I have suggested (Why believe in the Bible?) that to understand the Bible, we need to hear what the experts say about it, read it for ourselves, and seek the revelation of the Holy Spirit.

I can’t read it for you, nor am I the Holy Spirit, but I can outline what the best experts say. This page is a summary of the consensus of scholars on the New Testament, with links to other pages with further information.

Which experts should we trust?

I have found that scholars can come with their own agendas, from christian apologists whose views are driven by the belief that the Bible is the Word of God and reliable in every respect, right through to sceptical apologists whose views are driven by disbelief.

While these more extreme views may have some merit, honest enquiry requires that we take most notice of scholars who write from the mainstream, with as few agendas as possible. Therefore in this and other pages on this site, I will generally reference scholars whose views are most respected and quoted by their peers. I try to balance scholars who are believers with those who are disbelievers.

On this website you will most often see the following names, who are all well-respected scholars: Michael Grant, Maurice Casey, EP Sanders and Bart Ehrman (non-christians) and NT Wright, Craig Evans, Richard Bauckham and John Dickson (christians).

Basic facts about the New Testament

Jesus probably died in 30 CE, and almost immediately his followers proclaimed that he was resurrected, started passing on stories about him, developed rudimentary creeds and began to worship him alongside God. Most of the stories were probably passed down orally (some of Jesus’ sayings may have been memorised), but it is likely that some were written down at the time.

The first of the 27 “books” of the New Testament were probably Paul’s letters (written from about 50 CE through to about 65 CE. The gospels were probably written later – generally scholars believe Mark was written in the period 60-75 CE, with Matthew and Luke written a little later and finally John was written about 90 CE. Most of the remaining books were probably written in the later part of the first century. While Jesus spoke Aramaic, the New Testament is written in Greek, which was a more universal language.

The original documents of the New Testament were probably written in ink on papyrus, and such documents are not long lasting, especially if they are being used regularly. Copies were made by hand, using checking procedures to ensure as accurate a copy as possible, but over the years small errors crept in. We now have more than 5,600 manuscripts containing part of the New Testament, plus many more in Latin, dated from early second century to the 15th century, but of course many more copies, and the originals, have now been lost.

Different ones of the gospels and letters were used in different locations, but gradually some became widely accepted. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the collection of books we have today was assembled and recognised as authoritative.

Many other writings about Jesus and/or by christians made their appearance, but few others were written in the first century, or widely accepted. Many are recognised by scholars to be not historically reliable.

Authorship

Scholars agree that about half of ‘Paul’s letters’ were indeed written by Paul, but the rest are disputed (principally because the style and language seems to be different). A few of the letters may have been written by anonymous authors who put a more famous person’s name as author.

The gospels are historically the most important because they claim to report history that is crucially important for christian belief. The names of the authors are not included in the writings as we have them, but may have been written on the outside of scrolls. Scholars say the gospels are written in the genre of historical biography, in which an author preserved the main historical facts while giving a picture of their main character. Here is a brief summary of scholars’ conclusions:

  • Mark was written first and there seems little reason to doubt that a man named Mark was its author. There is some evidence that Mark based his writing on stories told by the apostle Peter. Mark has the appearance of a “no frills” biography, with some of it showing signs of having been translated from Aramaic writings. (There is some evidence that the apostle Matthew wrote down sayings of Jesus in Aramaic, and these were used by Mark and others.)
  • Matthew appears to have been written by a Jewish disciple, and seems to be based primarily on a set of Jesus’ sayings (perhaps the Aramaic sayings purportedly written by Matthew, which gave the gospel it’s title) and Mark’s gospel.
  • Luke was a gentile doctor, an educated man and considered to be an excellent historian. He makes clear at the start that he never met Jesus but obtained his material from written and oral stories of eyewitnesses. Luke also wrote the book of Acts (the only other historical account in the New Testament).
  • John’s gospel is the most difficult to classify. The author is unknown, but he seems to have lived in Jerusalem rather than Galilee like Jesus and most of his followers. He mostly relates events that happened there, he knew Jerusalem very well (including features that were destroyed in 70 CE or before, some only uncovered recently by archaeology – see Archaeology and the truth of the gospels), and he apparently knew some of the Jewish religious leaders. Some say he was John the Elder, a well known figure in the early church. This gospel was almost certainly written last of the four, and it is less a straight history like the others, but includes a lot of John’s own thoughts about Jesus.

Are the gospels historically accurate?

Scholars approach they New Testament as they would any other ancient text, and don’t assume it is the “word of God”. Various factors are considered to allow them to decide whether the gospels, or parts of them, are historical (for more on this, see The gospels as history).

Were they written by eyewitnesses?

It is uncertain if any of the four gospels were actually written by eyewitnesses (John and Matthew may have been, Luke and Mark were not). But scholars believe eyewitness reports have been remembered or written and passed down to the authors. Luke makes clear that he based his gospel on such reports.

Were they written soon after the events?

The gap of 20-60 years between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the New Testament is considered to be a short time by ancient standards.

How much were they changed by copying?

Manual copying would seem to us to be an unreliable process, but it was done surprisingly accurately. The New Testament has two advantages compared to any other ancient document:

  1. The gap between the original and our earliest copies is much shorter than for most ancient documents, so there was far less opportunity for copying errors.
  2. Because we have so many manuscripts (many times more than for any other ancient document), we can compare their wording and see if changes have been made, either inadvertently or deliberately.

It turns out that there are 400,000 variant readings across a million pages when all manuscript copies are counted (see The reliability of the New Testament text). Most of these are minor spelling errors, place name variations or word order changes that make no difference to the sense. Textual scholar Bart Ehrman has listed the most significant variants:

  • Two passages which were not in the original text and are identified as such in modern Bibles.
  • Two small passages of 2 verses each which also appear to be later additions.
  • Half a dozen passages where the meaning of a word appears to have been changed.

Scholars have noted that less than 1% of the text is affected by any significant variation, and no major historical event or doctrine is affected by these variations. Bart Ehrman: “To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.”

John A.T. Robinson summarises: “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.”

External corroboration

Jesus was a minor figure in the world of his day, and would never have been noticed by secular historians were it not for the christian movement which he began. But the bare outline of Jesus’ life is corroborated by the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus, and there are brief references to him in several other first and second century non-christian writings. Archaeology confirms some details of John’s gospel and the book of Acts.

Using a similar basis as for other historical analysis, historians therefore generally conclude that, while there are many aspects of the gospels they cannot verify, and a few that they think are inaccurate or inconsistent, the historical basis for the New Testament is strong (though not without its difficulties). We can reasonably accept the documents as reliable history.

The reliability of Acts

Historians generally respect Luke as a fine ancient historian, and Acts as a reliable historical account.

Errors and inconsistencies in the New Testament?

Some alleged problems are easily explained. The writers didn’t necessarily put the gospels in chronological order, they often summarised teaching rather than record it verbatim, and similar events and teachings could have occurred more than once.

But four main areas of problems have been raised regarding the reliability of the New Testament.

Birth stories

Jesus’ birth is recorded in only Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, and some details are common to both – Mary was his mother and she was a virgin when she conceived, Joseph was Jesus’ apparent father and Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We can take it that these details were known or believed from the beginning.

However other parts of the stories are recorded by only one writer, and some aspects appear contradictory, including the apparent date. Most scholars therefore doubt that the star, the wise men, the census and the trip to Egypt are historical events, but rather ways of expressing the importance of Jesus’ birth. Only a minority of scholars would accept all these as historical.

Names and places

Two issues stand out here:

  • Some people claim that Bethlehem and Nazareth didn’t exist as villages at the time of Jesus. Scholars are virtually unanimous, on the basis of some good recent archaeological evidence (see Bethlehem and Nazareth that Nazareth was indeed a village in Jesus’ day, but the jury is still out on Bethlehem.
  • Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of a spectacular exorcism by Jesus involving a large herd of pigs, but they all give slightly different names for the location (the city of Gerasa or the territory around Gadara, and some old texts have the territory of the Gergesenes). Neither of the cities is near Lake Galilee as required by the story. However the texts suggest the event took place in the territory around the city, and there are many variant readings in the different manuscripts, so it seems likely that this is more a copying error than anything else. (Matthew also mentions two possessed men whereas the other gospels mention only one, but this too can be easily explained.)
Jesus’ last week

Some details of Jesus’ last week are different in John to the other three gospels. The protest in the temple has been moved by John to the beginning of his gospel, presumably to make a point. Then John seems to have the timing of the Last Supper and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion different to the other gospels. Again some think John was making a point, some think we don’t understand the variability in different groups’ celebration of the Passover, and most think it is a genuine discrepancy. Regardless of this, virtually no scholars doubt the main events of that week.

The resurrection

The resurrection stories in the different gospels are difficult to harmonise, for example, the number of women who went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday, the number of people or angels that were there, and the details of Jesus’ appearances to his followers. Despite these differences, the majority of scholars conclude that Jesus’ tomb was empty and/or his disciples had some sort of vision of him alive, and almost all accept that Jesus’ followers believed he had been resurrected from the beginning.

John Wenham has shown that the stories can be harmonised convincingly, although his reconstruction isn’t endorsed by many.

Overall, all these apparent errors have been explained, but the probability that all the explanations are true is generally judged to be small. But the problems are relatively small, and while they may shake someone’s belief in the New Testament as a perfect document, they make little difference to its general historical accuracy.

Was Jesus a real person or a myth?

The scholars are very clear on this one – Jesus was indeed a real person. Bart Ehrman: “I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”

The scholars are almost equally unanimous about whether any part of the story of Jesus was a myth copied from pagan gods. The alleged similarities are mostly fictitious and the few that have any truth are unremarkable.

What can we know about Jesus?

The historians are by no means unanimous about which aspects of the gospels can be considered historical and which are unable to be determined, or are considered to probably not be historical. But the following (taken from Jesus and the historians) is a broad consensus.

  • Jesus was born about 4-7 BCE, his mother was Mary and he grew up in Nazareth.
  • He was baptised by John the Baptist (probably about 28 CE) and began a public teaching and healing ministry in Galilee, calling 12 disciples to join him.
  • He was well-known as a healer and exorcist (though scholars disagree whether he really performed such actions).
  • He associated with outcasts, unusual for a teacher of his day.
  • He characteristically taught in parables, and his main message was the kingdom of God – God was breaking into history in a new way through his ministry, and repentant sinners were welcome and could receive forgiveness.
  • He believed he was the Messiah, though this didn’t necessarily mean anything divine. Nevertheless, after his death, his followers began to worship him and eventually came to the conclusion he was divine (it is debated whether this took a decade or half a century).
  • He believed his death would be redemptive.
  • He created a symbolic disturbance in the temple in Jerusalem (probably about 30 CE), was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities and executed (crucified) by the Roman Governor, Pilate.
  • After his death, his followers said they had seen him alive, his tomb was empty and he had been resurrected by God.

Within this broad outline, scholars argue about the historicity of various events and sayings, but none of these arguments significantly changes the overall picture.

Conclusion

These are the historical facts as best as scholars can determine them. Our conclusions about Jesus (e.g. whether he spoke the truth and whether he was divine) will be largely determined by whether we believe he was the true son of God and whether we believe he was resurrected.

The focus on this page has been what we can believe about the Bible. You can find information on what we can believe about Jesus elsewhere on this site in Jesus.

Read more in this series on the Bible

Why believe in the Bible? – the first page in this series, giving reasons to believe the gospels stories about Jesus contain good historical information, and how that provides a basis for approaching the rest of the Bible.

What the scholars tell us about the Old Testament – the next page in the series, about the conclusions of scholars about the Old Testament, and how we might respond.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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