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ISBN/ASIN : 0830827684
Manufacturer : InterVarsity Press|
Release data : 30 January, 2005
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Yes, the NT Is Historically Reliable
Is the New Testament an historically reliable source of information about Jesus and the early church?
According to a number of contemporary scholars, the answer to that question is no. For example, Robert Funk and the members of the Jesus Seminar argue that Jesus did not say or perform a majority of the words and actions attributed to him in the Gospels. Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman argue that multiple versions of Christianity competed for the allegiance of the faithful in the early centuries of the church. The books of the New Testament - and the history and theology they communicate - are simply the documents of that competition's winners, who went on to forcibly suppress alternative Christianities. Even popular media debunk the New Testament. Last year, just in time for Christmas, both Time and Newsweek ran cover stories that expressed skepticism about the veracity of details of Jesus' birth.
But these voices represent only one side an ongoing debate. Paul Barnett's Is the New Testament Reliable? is a representative of the other, affirmative side. Barnett is a churchman and a scholar - the former Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Australia, and currently a teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, and a visiting fellow in ancient history at Macquarie University in Australia. He is the author of Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity and Jesus and the Logic of History, among other books. The first volume of his trilogy, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years will be published in April by Eerdmans.
In Is the New Testament Reliable? Barnett argues that "Jesus and the first Christians are genuine figures of history and that they are faithfully and truthfully written about in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles." To bolster this conclusion, Barnett asks and answers a number of questions.
First, "Did Jesus in fact live?" Barnett cites several early Roman and Jewish writers and texts that confirm both his existence of the spread of Jesus-worship from Judea to Rome by the mid-First-Century A.D.
Second, "Can we know the time frame in which the New Testament was written?" The latest date that the New Testament books could have been written is approximately A.D. 95, when patristic writers began to cite them in their own works. The earliest date they could have been written was A.D. 33, which is the date Barnett offers for the crucifixion of Jesus. (He notes that most scholars date Christ's death to A.D. 30.) Based on internal evidence, Paul began to write his letters around A.D. 50, and the last of his letters was written in the early 60s. Most scholars date the Gospels and Acts in the 60s to 80s. What this means is that the books of the New Testament were written within a generation of two of Jesus' death. By contrast, "our major sources [for the life of Tiberius, 42 B.C.-A.D.37] are considerably later-Tacitus about A.D. 110, Suetonius about A.D. 120 and Dio Cassius about A.D. 220." If we can be reasonably sure of the historical reliability of our late sources in reconstructing the life of Tiberius, we can be reasonably sure of the reliability of our much earlier sources for a life of Jesus.
Third, "Can we be confident about transmission of the manuscripts from those times to the present?" Once again, yes. "There are more than five hundred manuscripts or manuscript fragments [of New Testament books] in Greek that have survived from the early centuries," Barnett writes. By contrast, "there are only nine complete manuscripts [of Jewish Wars by the first-century author Josephus], the oldest of which is a fifth-century Latin translation. There are only two manuscripts of the Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, neither of which "is earlier than the Middle Ages." If we can be reasonably confident of the accuracy of Josephus's and Tacitus's texts, we can be reasonably confident of the New Testament's textual accuracy.
Fourth, "can we know that what we read of Jesus is a true account?" Obviously, this is the most important question. Barnett answers it by revealing the multiple, independent sources that underlie the Gospels. We tend to think that there are four primary historical sources for the life of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But that is not actually the case. A cursory reading of Matthew, Mark, and Luke reveals that they are similar to one another in both the arrangement and wording of their material. The majority of New Testament scholars have concluded that Mark is our oldest Gospel and further that Matthew and Luke used him as one of their sources. Noting that Matthew and Luke have material in common that is not shared with Mark, scholars have also concluded that those two Gospels employed a source, which they refer to as Q (from the German word Quelle, or "source.") But Matthew and Luke also present material unique to them. Scholars refer to this unique material as M and L, respectively. Finally, because the Gospel of John is so unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, many scholars believe that he represents another source of historical information about the life of Jesus. So, instead of the four Gospels, we have at least five historical sources: Mark, Q, M, L, and John. We might add to this the independent traditions of information about Jesus culled from the New Testament epistles. Although there are differences between these sources - including some conflicts that are hard to resolve - the basic picture of Jesus they present is largely consistent and, I might add, theologically traditional.
The greatest challenge to the historical reliability of these sources is the presence of miracles within them, miracles such as Christ's virginal conception, his healing of the sick, and his own resurrection from the dead. Barnett points out multiple sources attest to the reality of all three. The birth of Christ is described in the two very different accounts of M and L, which nonetheless agree at significant points. Similarly, all the New Testament sources of our information about Jesus (Mark, Q, M, L, John) present him as a miracle worker, and several extrabiblical historical sources (Josephus, the rabbis) confirm this impression. Whatever else may be said about the historical Jesus, first-century writers believed that Jesus had the power to perform miracles.
The greatest miracle, of course, is Jesus' own resurrection from the dead. Christian apologists sometimes defend the reality of miracles on philosophical grounds. (Consider Miracles by C.S. Lewis, for example.) Barnett argues for the reality of Jesus' resurrection on historical grounds, however.
We know from Paul's letters that the resurrection of Jesus played a significant role in the faith of the early Christians. To quote Paul, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born" (1 Cor. 15.3-8 [TNIV]). To Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was a fact confirmed by eyewitnesses. And it had spiritual importance: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Cor. 15.14 [TNIV]).
How should we account for this faith in Christ's resurrection? Barnett considers and rejects "alternative explanations" for the belief, such as (1) "the resurrection was a hoax," (2) "another man was crucified," (3) "Jesus did not actually die on the cross," (4) "the body was removed from the tomb," (5) "the women returned to the wrong tomb," (6) "the resurrection stories are legends," and (7) "the resurrection stories originated in the Osiris myth." The historical sources underlying the Gospels provide no credence to any of these explanations. And some of them are absurd. If Jesus' body was removed from the tomb by the disciples, for example, then they died for a belief they knew to be false. If it was taken by the authorities - whether Jewish or Roman - then simply producing the body would have ended Christianity at its beginning. If the women returned to the wrong tomb and thought Jesus had risen from the dead, a quick visit to the right tomb would have dispelled their illusion. Belief in Jesus' resurrection appears too early for it to be a legend, for legends take long periods of time to develop.
What emerges from Barnett's discussion of the resurrection is that the best historical explanation of belief in Jesus' resurrection is Jesus' resurrection itself. This explanation accounts for the early disciples' belief in what neither Jews or Greeks thought possible or desirable. Jews taught the resurrection of all the dead at the end of time, not the resurrection of one man to eternal life while those around him still died. And Greeks desired the immortality of their souls, not the resurrection of their bodies. Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection was unique to them, attested by multiple sources, and confirmed by the change in the lives of members of the early church.
Does Barnett's case for the basic historical reliability of the New Testament make any difference in our spiritual lives? Yes, for if the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles are reliable sources of information about Jesus and the early church, then we ought to confess and practice the faith of the early church. If the New Testament picture of Jesus as the divine Son of God, crucified for our sins, and raised that we might have eternal life is correct, then we must seek eternal salvation in him. History, you see, impels us to act - or rather, to believe. If Jesus lived, died, and rose again, he is the Lord, and we must follow him. If not, then whatever respect we may have for Jesus as a teacher of morality, we need not pay any more attention to him than we pay to Socrates, St. Francis, or Dr. Phil.
In this little review, I have tried to communicate the gist of Paul Barnett's argument for the historical reliability of the New Testament, as well as its relevance. But read the book for yourself. And draw your own conclusions.
Easy to read and excellent information
It seems to me that the most often quoted resource on this subject (for works written for lay-readers, anyways) is "The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?" by F.F Bruce, which was recently reprinted. I have read both Bruce's book and this one, "Is the New Testament Reliable?: A Look at the Historical Evidence" by Paul Barnett. I think that while Bruce's book is well written and quite detailed, I prefer this book, by Barnett, because it is easier to read and contains all of the information I was looking for.
I especially found chapters 2 ("Did Jesus Exist? Early Non-Christian References") and 3 ("Fixing the Time-Frame") to be succinctly written and clear. I still reference material found in these chapters.
The only problem I found was that many of the references for further reading at the end of the chapters are now out of print and/or hard to find. If you want more details on a specific subject, you may need to search out a dedicated source on that subject.
My only previous knowledge of this subject matter was from Lee Strobel's excellent "Case for Christ", and my purpose for buying this book was that I wanted to know more details about the historicity and accuracy of the Bible. I found what I was looking for here, and this is a simply terrific book which I recommend wholeheartedly.
This books is an incredible resource for anyone interested in taking a serious, objective look at the background information behind the NT. It does not simply assert it's truth, as many opposing views of the Bible do, but calmly weaves many seemless arguments which, to this author's knowledge, have gone unchallenged thus far in Christianity.