Unlike many of the other great religions of the world - Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Judaism to some extent - Christianity is founded not on a philosophy or a metaphysical idea, but on an historical event.

According to Christianity, sometime around the year 0 a boy was born in the town of Bethlehem; sometime around the year 30 that same boy, now a man, started preaching, gathering disciples, healing and confronting the authorities that be. A few years later, those same authorities had him crucified. But a few days later he was seen alive by his disciples. After he returned to heaven these disciples travelled all over the known world, preaching this message - that the word has become flesh and has dwelt among us. A good number of them were killed before denying what they believed. 2000 years later, millions of people around the world still live lives, not just according to this man's teaching, but in some way 'in' him, and he in them too.

My question is very broad, but basically very simple. If Christianity is indeed based so firmly on real historical events, then surely there must have been significant scholarly work to discern the reliability of the New Testament cannon. Has this work been summarised in any books? Are there any objective (as far as that's possible) reviews of the historical reliability of the claims of the New Testament writings (particularly the Gospels and Paul's writings). Or possibly are there several complementing (should I say competing :) ) works that would give a balanced overview.

What frustrates me the most about this issue is the dichotomy of views. To take but one example, my good old NIV study bible says, concerning the authorship of 1 Timothy, that '...evidence is convincingly supportive of Paul's authorship' yet according to Wikipedia 'most modern scholars' hold that Paul was not the author.

As I said at the beginning, Christianity is in many ways unique in that the entire religion is firmly based on purported historical events. In light of the great range of opinions and views we hear on this issue, I want to spend some time looking at the new testament independently of my Christian bias. Any help (particularly recommended reading) would be greatly appreciated. Thankyou

  • To clarify: do you mean reliability of the events? Or reliability of the Provenance? (your 1 Timothy example). Dec 31 '11 at 10:38
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    The problem with getting an "unbiased viewpoint" is that those who have approached the subject and have been convinced by the evidence are likely to be Christians (since they were convinced). Those that have approached the subject and not been convinced remain non-Christian, so when it comes to determining bias, there's really a chicken/egg issue. You can't reject sources on the basis that they are Christian fairly without also rejecting sources that are non-Christian, as each has their own worldview by which to interpret the evidence. Dec 31 '11 at 15:50
  • @David Stratton - If one selected people who were not Christian before they started studying the event, that would fix the selection bias problem that you describe.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jan 1 '12 at 7:32
  • @Marc Gravell I suppose I'm just looking generally at the reliability of both the historical events and the authority of the teaching that is based upon these (and of course the authority of the teaching is closely related to the authorship)
    – tom
    Jan 1 '12 at 14:22
  • @David Stratton what I suppose I'm looking for is an honest account of the evidence, either from a Christian or non-christian. Just because someone believes one viewpoint doesn't mean he can't present the evidence and respectfully discuss alternative views. I feel though that many popular christian apologetics make the situation look too straightforward. I'm led to this conclusion by their failure to acknowledge what Wikipedia at least claims almost universally accepted. An honest appraisal would discuss the various pros and cons of each view fairly. I begin to fear I am asking too much :)
    – tom
    Jan 1 '12 at 14:22

If you mean events: much of the NT concerns small groups of average people. We would not expect independent validation, so any question of historic accuracy is limited to a single source (or, if you like, a few intertwined sources) (which has inbuilt bias, if evaluating from a clinical perspective). Simply: for much of NT I would expect simply: no one can say for certain, beyond faith.

The grave-openings in Matthew 27:52 are massively unreported, though; from a historic evidence perspective, that is something you might expect people to have noticed and reported, enough to be visible today.

Ultimately, we have only a fragmented set of documentary sources from the time period - the luck of whatever survived 2000 years (whether in original form, or via copying). There honestly isn't an awful lot of parallel evidence to look at (which says nothing about the accuracy of events, or not, other than to say: it is hard to know).

Additionally, any evidence or counter-evidence for any individual event does not prove or disprove any other events. For example, while there may be some independent mention of the crucifixion, that from an evidence basis says nothing about the resurrection.

Likewise, because it is written that something was witnessed by (say) 100 people, does not prove that this is the case; numbers (and events) can be subject to embellishment, so many of the events are, from an evidence perspective, not certain to be reliable.

I want to spend some time looking at the new testament independently of my Christian bias

That simply does not exist, as such; the key sources are Christian, and it is perfectly well known that the documents selected for inclusion in what became The Bible were selected; among this selection, being "in line" with the dogma was a factor. Unless you mean something like a Jefferson Bible (and I don't think that is what you mean). This is obviously something that a lot of people have looked at lots of times, over lots of years. To date, I am honestly unaware of any compelling evidence that has not faced significant criticism, usually for uncertain logic, cherry-picking over the (scant) evidence, and making some fairly large assumptions (in particular with the motivation of characters or authors).

If you are a believer, I suggest: base your beliefs on your faith.

  • Thankyou very much for your thoughts - I really appreciate them, though I'm still not entirely convinced. I am aware (after a few weeks of reading around :) ) that someone like N.T. Wright would argue that events like the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, the discovery of the empty tomb and experiences of post-mortem appearances by Jesus are as certain as any other facts of ancient history. Of course, these events do not necessarily imply the resurrection, but if what Dr Wright claims is indeed true, this would constitute solid evidence of its occurrence as a historical fact.
    – tom
    Jan 7 '12 at 8:57
  • By the by, I'm also slightly confused by your last sentence - basing belief on faith ... they're basically synonyms - slightly circular don't you think :)
    – tom
    Jan 7 '12 at 8:59
  • @tom faith means (in the dictionary sense) belief without/beyond evidence; belief (as a word) says nothing about how you are justifying the belief. But to avoid confusion, maybe "base your convictions..." or any word you prefer. Re certain facts of history - I will have to read Dr Wright to comment (do you have a particular work in mind?), but: historical knowledge is not usually certain - it is a best fit to the available (often limited) information, and is routinely updated and revised. Jan 7 '12 at 9:08
  • In case you're interested: While I haven't read it, William Lane Craig (see here) claims that N.T. Wright makes this claim ('that the empty tomb and (post-mortem) appearances have an historical probability which is to be so high as to be 'virtually certain', like the death of Augustus in AD 14') in his book 'The Resurrection of the Son of God'. And I agree with your comments about history - what I'm really interested in is the degree to which independent historical evidence would support Christian doctrine - I don't expect any certainties.
    – tom
    Jan 8 '12 at 11:26
  • On the faith and belief issue - I apologise if I came across as a bit flippant or cynical - the idea that Christians just 'base their beliefs on faith' hit a bit of a raw nerve for me. In some circles, faith has almost become a smear word intellectually - we compare rigour and rationalism with the blind faith and mysticism of Christianity. I suppose I would say that the Christian 'faith' is the same as for example, the faith that your chair will hold you when you sit on it. This is still 'faith', but it's not irrational - it's based on experience, knowledge and evidence.
    – tom
    Jan 8 '12 at 11:55

To avoid what is known as 'circular argument', any sources on Historical Reliability of the New Testament must be extra-biblical and independent of the New Testament. Since it is impossible to prove that Mary was a virgin, but also the pagans and Jews of the middle of the first century did not go around saying things like "Mary was not a virgin", and since there is no contemporary evidence that Jesus did perform miracles or that he rose from the dead", we must to a large extent rely on historical criticism of the gospels and the other books of the New Testament.

Fortunately, critical scholars have identified the Gospel of Mark as the first New Testament to be written and there is, according to John Dominic Crossan (The Birth of Christianity, pages 110-111) a "massive consensus" that Matthew and Luke were substantially based on Mark. There is also a developing, although less complete, consensus that John was based on Luke. The consequence of these conclusions is that, to a large extent, we can focus on Mark's Gospel in our search for evidence of historicity in the life and mission of Jesus. Richard S. Hess says, in Israel’s Messiah, page 114, if even a significant fraction of this first written Gospel is historically accurate, the appropriate chronological starting point for this survey is Mark.

The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of modern Christianity, yet Uta Ranke-Heinemann says, in Putting Away Childish Things, page 138, that theologians are by now in practically unanimous agreement that Mark 16:9-20 is a later interpolation. The original gospel provided no record of the resurrection, other than the word of a young man the women met in the tomb, and even they ran away, telling no one of what they saw and heard:

Mark 16:8: And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

If scholars are right in saying that Mark provided the narrative source for the other New Testament gospels, then there is not much evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus. As for the historicity of the other gospel accounts, Ian Wilson says, in Jesus: The Evidence, page 143, because the Matthew gospel alone tells the story of the guard, the violent earthquake and the ‘angel of the Lord’ rolling away the entrance stone, it is probably safest to regard these as pious embroideries by an author demonstrably over-fond of the miraculous. Archbishop Peter Carnley, former Anglican primate of Australia writes in The Structure of Resurrection Belief:

The presence of discrepancies might be a sign of historicity if we had four clearly independent but slightly different versions of the story, if only for the reason that four witnesses are better than one. But, of course, it is now impossible to argue that what we have in the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are four contemporaneous but independent accounts of the one event... There is no suggestion that the tomb was discovered by different witnesses on four different occasions, so it is in fact impossible to argue that the discrepancies were introduced by different witnesses of the one event.

My concluding remarks on the gospel come from David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey and Donald Michie, who say in Mark as Story, page 5, if we look through Mark as a window into history, we will think first of the historical figure Jesus rather than of Mark's portrayal of Jesus. They say we should read Mark as story rather than as history.

If there is no evidence that Jesus was physically risen from the dead, this is problematic for Acts of the Apostles, which gives a dramatic account of Jesus during the forty days following his crucifixion, during which he provided many proofs and was seen by many, until finally taken bodily up into heaven. Acts tells us of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, but Raymond E. Brown says, in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 320, we can never verify the existence and martyrdom of Stephen. Acts tells of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, an event that Paul himself never mentions, but Ranke-Heinemann points out (ibid, page 163) the conversion account has improbable parallels to the ancient play, the Bacchae by Euripides (d. 406 BCE): "It hurts you to kick against the goad[or 'pricks']" (Acts 25:14). That this short passage is not a coincidence can be established because the situation and context are the same, and Acts even has Jesus even uses the same plural form of the noun (kentra) that Euripides needs for the metre of his line. The story of Paul's escape from prison has reasonably close parallels to words in the play - Acts 16:26: "... and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's fetters were unfastened;” Bacchae: "The chains on their legs snapped apart by themselves. Untouched by any human hand, the doors swung wide, opening of their own accord."

Michael Baigent reports in The Jesus Papers, page 11, that William Inge, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, was once asked to write on the life of Jesus. He declined, saying that there was not nearly enough solid evidence to write anything at all about him. Whatever the background of this anecdote, it does reflect the conclusion one could reach from the above analysis. There has been significant scholarly work to discern the reliability of the New Testament canon, but much of it points away from historicity of the New Testament. That does not mean that Jesus himself was not historical, just that those who wrote about him knew nothing of Jesus or what he actually did during his time on earth.

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