Christian Broadcasting Network

The Christian Broadcasting Network

Primacy of the New Testament Documents

By William Lane Craig
Guest Contributor – Excerpted with permission from On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision

Now immediately we confront a problem. Since Jesus Himself didn’t leave behind any writings of His own, we’re dependent upon the records of others for knowing what Jesus said and did. Now this situation isn’t unusual for figures of antiquity. For example, the famous Greek philosopher Socrates also left behind no writings of his own. We’re dependent upon his disciple Plato for most of our knowledge of Socrates’ life and teaching. In the same way, we’re dependent upon the records of Jesus’ followers for His life and teaching.

But while this situation isn’t unusual, it does raise the question, how do we know that these records are accurate? Maybe Jesus’ followers said that He said and did certain things that He really didn’t. In particular, since the early Christians believed that Jesus was God, maybe they made up sayings and stories about how Jesus claimed to be divine. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus in the gospels makes claims and does things implying His divinity. Maybe the historical Jesus who really lived was very different from the divine figure we read about in the gospels. How can we tell if these records are historically accurate?

Well, up until the modern era these sorts of questions were basically unanswerable. But with the rise of textual criticism and the modern study of history, historians began to develop the tools to unlock these questions. Today Jesus is no longer just a figure in a stained-glass window, but a real, flesh-and-blood person of history, just like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, whose life can be investigated by the standard methods of history. The writings contained in the New Testament can be scrutinized using the same historical criteria that we use in investigating other sources of ancient history like Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War or the Annals of Tacitus.

Now the first thing we need to do in order to conduct a historical investigation of Jesus is to assemble our sources. Jesus of Nazareth is referred to in a range of ancient sources inside and outside the New Testament, including Christian, Roman, and Jewish sources. This is really quite extraordinary when you reflect on how obscure a figure Jesus was. He had at most a three-year public life as an itinerant Galilean preacher. Yet we have far more information about Jesus than we do for most major figures of antiquity.

The most important of these historical sources have been collected into the New Testament. References to Jesus outside the New Testament tend to confirm what we read in the gospels, but they don’t really tell us anything new. Therefore, the focus of our investigation must be upon the documents found in the New Testament.

Now I find that many laymen don’t understand this procedure. They think that if you examine the New Testament writings themselves rather than look at sources outside the New Testament, then somehow you’re reasoning in a circle, using the Bible to prove the Bible. If you even quote a passage out of the New Testament, they think you’re somehow begging the question, presupposing that the New Testament is reliable.

But that’s not at all what historians are doing when they examine the New Testament. They’re not treating the Bible as a holy, inspired book and trying to prove it’s true by quoting it. Rather they’re treating the New Testament just like any other collection of ancient documents and investigating whether these documents are historically reliable.

It’s important to understand that originally there wasn’t any such book called “The New Testament.” There were just these separate documents handed down from the first century, things like the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, Greece, and so on. It wasn’t until a couple centuries later that the church officially collected all these documents under one cover, which came to be known as the New Testament.

The church chose only the earliest sources, which were closest to Jesus and the original disciples, to include in the New Testament and left out the later, secondary accounts like the forged apocryphal gospels, which everyone knew were fakes. So from the very nature of the case, the best historical sources were included in the New Testament. People who insist on evidence taken only from writings outside the New Testament don’t understand what they’re asking us to do. They’re demanding that we ignore the earliest, primary sources about Jesus in favor of sources that are later, secondary, and less reliable, which is just crazy as historical methodology.

This is important because all of the radical reconstructions of the historical Jesus in the news today are based on later writings outside the New Testament, in particular the so-called apocryphal gospels. What are the apocryphal gospels? They’re gospels forged under the apostles’ names, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, and so forth. They first began to appear in the second half of the second century after Christ. Revisionists claim that these extrabiblical writings are the key to correctly reconstructing the historical Jesus.

Professor Luke Johnson, a distinguished New Testament scholar at Emory University, points out that all of the recent spate of books claiming to uncover the real Jesus follow the same predictable pattern:

1. The book begins by trumpeting the scholarly credentials of the author and his prodigious research.
2. The author claims to offer some new, and maybe even suppressed, interpretation of who Jesus really was.
3. The truth about Jesus is said to be discovered by means of sources outside the Bible that enable us to read the gospels in a new way that is at odds with their face-value meaning.
4. This new interpretation is provocative and even titillating, for example, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene or was the leader of a hallucinogenic cult or a peasant cynic philosopher.
5. It is implied that traditional Christian beliefs are therefore undermined and need to be revised.

If you hear of books following this familiar pattern, your critical antennae should automatically go up! You are about to be duped. For the fact is that there is no historically credible source outside the New Testament that calls into question the portrait of Jesus painted in the gospels. The apocryphal gospels are later, derivative writings shaped by the theology of the second century and beyond. What this means is that despite all the hoopla, the documents contained in the New Testament are our primary sources for the life of Jesus.

So try not to think of the New Testament as a single book; think of it as what it originally was: a bunch of separate documents coming to us out of the first century telling this remarkable story about Jesus of Nazareth. The question then must be: How historically reliable are these documents?

Log in or create an account to post a comment.  

Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?

A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.