Can We Trust the New Testament?

Can We Trust the New Testament?

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

In this article, we consider whether the New Testament can be trusted as a witness for Jesus’ existence. After all, it is considered the chief primary source for Jesus’ life. Some people wonder: “How can an ancient text, which is almost 2,000 years old, be considered reliable?”

In the first two articles of this series, we looked over the ancient historians that testify to the existence of Jesus and/or his followers (click here to read article 1 and click here to read article 2). To my knowledge, none of them are questioned as to their historical value. These sources are considered reliable. I learned about them in grade school and college; we were taught from these texts. Below, I have listed the approximate dates for the oldest complete manuscripts of these works.

Josephus – 9th or 10th century

Tacitus – 11th century

Pliny the Younger – Late 5th century

Suetonius – 9th through 12th centuries

Lucian – 9th century

The oldest complete manuscript for four out of these five works is about 700 to 900 years after the time in which the author lived. Why is this? From the ninth century onwards, kings and monks engaged in a rigorous campaign to copy older manuscripts of the classical writers, especially as it relates to Roman history. The content from these works has been cross checked with other manuscripts of writers from a similar time. There are also scattered fragments of these works which date earlier. Archaeological findings have been used to corroborate the content. These works have each been critically examined over the centuries. This explains why their content remains to be taught and disseminated in Academia today.

If these texts can be trusted for historical content, though their manuscript history is distant to the events they report, what about the New Testament? The original New Testament describes events that occur mostly in the first century AD. What is the agreed upon date for its oldest complete manuscript?

The oldest complete text is the Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD), which is within 320 years of the life of Jesus. There are also two others that date near it: Codex Vaticanus (fourth century AD), and Codex Alexandrinus (450 AD). Moreover, thousands of fragments or manuscripts of the New Testament that date to the same time and earlier. This includes manuscripts from earlier dates with large portions of the New Testament, such as: Beatty Biblical Papyrus I (which contains the gospels and Acts and dates to the third century), Beatty Biblical Papyrus II (a codex of most of Paul’s letters and dates to the early or mid third century), Papyrus Bodmer II (which includes nearly all of John’s Gospel and dates to before 200 AD), and others that contain significant portions of the New Testament.

Below, we have a picture of papyrus 52, which is considered the earliest known fragment of John’s Gospel. It dates to about 125 AD, and contains John 18:31-33 on one side and John 18:37-38 on the other side.

Papyrus of John 18:31-33
Public Domain, copyright tag: PD-US



Another ancient witness of these writings includes the second century writers of Christianity, including Polycarp (a disciple of the early Apostles), Irenaeus (who was a hearer of Polycarp), Justin the Martyr, and other writers who attest to the writings of the first disciples. In about 150 AD, Tatian composed the Diatessaron, which was a compilation of all four gospels into one seamless story structured around the narrative found in the Gospel of John. It was the most widely used gospel narrative in Syria until the fifth century and was used elsewhere. There is one fragment that dates to before the mid-third century and it is quoted and referenced in numerous other early Church writings. Furthermore, the work was translated into other languages over time (some of which have survived into modern times). The details have led to its acceptance as a legitimate writing from the early Church.

Some early church writers mentioned a list of accepted writings from the early disciples. The Muratorian canon is among them. It contains a list of accepted books of the first disciples and dates to the mid to late second century.

We would have even more New Testament manuscripts from earlier times, but warfare, weather, and other factors such as persecution caused older manuscripts to be lost. For instance, the Roman Emperor Diocletian initiated a persecution which lasted approximately 10 years (303-313 AD). During it, the persecutors tried to burn Christian manuscripts. The church historian, Eusebius was a contemporary to these events. He wrote the following account:

“All these things were fulfilled in us, when we saw with our own eyes the houses of prayer thrown down to the very foundations, and the Divine and Sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places, and the shepherds of the churches basely hidden here and there, and some of them captured ignominiously, and mocked by their enemies…It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in the month Dystrus, called March by the Romans, when the feast of the Saviour’s passion was near at hand, that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom” (Eusebius, Church History, 8.2.1,4).

Despite this attempt to terminate Christian documents, many fragments of the New Testament survived. This includes the source documents for the codices we described earlier. They were based upon earlier documents which scribes before them had copied from even earlier compilations.

In summation, complete manuscripts of the New Testament date much closer to the events it describes than its other counterparts. Fragments or portions of the text exist to even earlier dates. There are sections of it quoted by numerous early Church writers. All of these details put together adds to its reliability as a document of ancient events, people, and places.

Altogether, the evidence reviewed in the historical documents about Jesus and Archaeology relating to the life of Jesus (Click here to read an article about archaeology pertaining to Jesus) articles confirms over 25% of the New Testament! To learn more about the history and archaeology pertaining to the life of Jesus, CLICK HERE to download out free e-book: “How Do We Know Jesus Really Lived?”

Below, we have listed a summary of approximately 2,589 verses confirmed by the historical and archaeological evidence we have reviewed. Enjoy!

For each entry I list the detail from the evidence and then list the number of verses that mention that piece of evidence. I approximate the total number of verses referenced to be about 2,000 because some subjects overlap and thus a verse might count more than one time. This is a sample and a more thorough study could certainly be done on this subject. Most of the time, the greater context of the verse is not included, which would certain add more verse references.

Jesus [943 verses]: the examples are so numerous that it would take pages to list them all.

Jesus was called Christ [over 200 verses; I have only mentioned a few examples]: Matthew 1:1, 1:16, 1:18, 16:16, 20; Mark 1:1, 8:29,14:61; Luke 2:11, 26, 4:41; John 1:17, 4:42, 6:69; Acts 2:36; Romans 1:6.

Specifically, the phrase “Jesus who is called Christ” [4 verses]: Matthew 1:16, 27:17, 27:22; John 4:25.

Nazareth [29 verses]: Matthew 2:23, 4:13, 21:11, 26:71; Mark 1:9,24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6, Luke 1:26, 2:4,39,51, 4:16,34, 18:37, 24:19; John 1:45-46, 18:5-7, 19:19; Acts 2:22, 3:6, 4:10, 6:14, 10:38, 22:8, 26:9.

Tiberius Caesar—direct references [1 verse]: Luke 3:1.

Tiberius Caesar—indirect references to him as Caesar [10 verses]: Matthew 22:17, 21; Mark 12:14, 17; Luke 20:22,25, 23:2, John 19:12, 15.

Pilate [54 verses, most of which are contained in passages]: Matthew 27:2-65; Mark 15:1-44; Luke 3:1, 13:1, 23:1-52; John 18:29-38, 19:1-38; Acts 3:13, 4:27, 13:28; I Timothy 6:13.

Jewish authorities made accusations against Jesus [well over 20 verses, some examples mentioned multiple times in a passage]: Matthew 20:18, 21:15,23, 26:3-59, 27:1-41; Mark 11:18, 14:1,10,43-55, 15:1-31; Luke 9:22, 19:47, 22:2-4, 22:52-66, 23:4-20; John 7:32-45, 18:3,35, 19:6-15,21.

Crucifixion [49 verses total, some of which are contained in passages]: Matthew 20:19, 23:34, 26:2, 27:22-44, 28:5; Mark 15:13-32; Lk. 23:21-33, 24:7, 24:26; John 19:6-41; Acts 2:23, 26, 4:10; I Cor. 1:23, 2:2, 2:8; 2 Cor. 13:4; Gal 2:20, 3:1; Heb. 6:6; Rev. 11:8.

Jesus was called wise [4 verses]:  Matthew 13:54; Mark 6:2; Luke 2:40, 52.

Jesus was teacher [many verses, but 21 are listed here]: Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 11:1, 21:23, 22:16, 26:55; Mark 4:1, 6:2, 6:6, 34, 12:14, 14:49; Luke 5:17, 11:1, 13:10,22, 20:21, 21:37, 23:5; John 3:2; Acts 1:1.

Jesus and James had an earthly father named Joseph: Matthew 1:16,

Jesus had Jewish and Greek followers [about 60 verse references listed, but more are available. I also included references to Gentile followers after his death]: Matthew 4:25, 8:1,18, 9:8-10, 33-36, 11:7,12:15,21, 13:2, 34-36, 14:14-23, 15:10, 30, 20:29, 21:8-9, 21:11, 46, 22:33, 23:1; Mark 1:34, 2:2-13, 15, 3:7-9, 30-32, 6:31, 55-56, 15:41; Luke 2:32, 7:11; John 2:23, 4:39-41, 7:31, 8:30, 10:42, 11:45, 12:11, 20-25, 42; Acts 2:41, 4:4, 8:7-8, 9:42, 13:43, 14:21, 15:35, 17:12, 18:8, 19:18-19, 21:20, 28:23-31. All of the early followers were Jewish, but some were Gentiles.

Jesus was considered a prophet [14 verses]: Matthew 21:46; Mark 8:28; Luke 1:76, 7:16, 9:8,19, 24:19; John 4:19,44, 6:14, 7:40, 9:17; Acts 3:22-23, 7:37.

Jesus was considered a teacher of Truth [3 verses]: Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21.

The Jesus movement started in Judea [43 verses mention Judaea or Judea]: The gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all confirm this as Jesus taught throughout Judea; see also Acts 1:8.

Jesus performed miracles and did good [many examples exist, but I have listed 29 verses]: Matthew 4:23, 8:7-13,14-15, 9:35, 12:15, 14:14, 15:30; Luke 7:3, 9:42, 13:14, 14:3, 22:51, John 2:11, 23, 3:2, 4:47,54, 5:13, 6:2, 11:47; Acts 2:22, 10:38.

Jesus was worshipped [9 verses]: Matthew 8:2, 9:18, 14:33, 15:25, 20:20, 28:9, 17; Mark, 5:6; Luke 24:52.

Jesus had a brother names James; in Hebrew his name was Jacob [9 verses – we listed both indirect references to Jesus’ brothers and specific references to James]: Matthew 13:55, Mk. 6:3, John 7:5, Acts 1:14, 12:17, 15:13, I Cor. 15:7, Gal. 1:19, Book of James was written by him – see James 1:1.

Jesus’ followers were called Christians [3 verses]: Acts 11:26, 26:28; I Peter 4:16.

Jesus’ disciples prayed to Him and in His name [3 verses]: Acts 1:24; James 5:14; I Peter 3:12.

Christians lived by Christ’s Words [again, many examples, but 27 verses listed]: Matthew 28:16-20, John 13:34-35; I Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:1-2; Col. 3:13-16; I Peter 2:21-25; I John 2:1-6, 3:15-16.

Christians considered each other brothers [approx. 245 examples in the New Testament, but we have a sample of 12 verses]: Matthew 12:50; Mark 3:35; Acts 20:32; Romans 1:13, 16:7; I Cor. 1:10-11; Hebrews 3:1; James 1:2; I Peter 1:22; 2 Peter 1:10; I John 2:7; Rev. 6:11, 22:9.

The first leaders of Christianity were in Judea [Jerusalem was the headquarters for early Christianity; we have 19 verses listed]: Acts 1:4-8, 11:1-2, 11:19-22, 11:26-27, 12:24-25, 15:2, 16:4, Gal. 2:1-2.

Christians met regularly on a fixed day [many examples in the gospels, but 5 specific examples listed here]: Acts 13:13-48, Acts 15:21, Acts 16:11-20, Acts 17:1-4, 18:1-6.

Christians were taught not to curse Christ [1 verse]: I Cor. 12:3.

Christians lived morally upright and shunned evil [at least 538 verses, all referenced]: Romans 6:1-22, 8:1-8, 12:9-21, 13:1-14; I Cor. 3:16-17, 5:1-13, 6:9-20, 10:1-13, chapter 13; Gal. 5:19-26; Eph. 4:17-32, 5:1-20; Phil. 2:12-16; Col. 3:1-17; I Thess. 4:1-12; 2 Thess. 2:11-12; I Tim. 3:1-13, 4:1-13, 5:1-16, 6:3-10; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; Titus 1:5-16; 2:1-14, 3:1-8; James 1:19-27, 2:1-26, 3:1-11, 4:1-12; I Peter 1:13-22, 2:1-3, 13-17, 3:8-18, 4:1-11; 2 Peter chapter 2, 3:11-13, I john 2:9-17, 3:1-24, 4:7-21, 5:1-5,13-21, Jude 3-22, Rev. chapters 2 and 3.

Christians were taught to shun idols [30 verses]: Acts 15:20, 15:29, 21:25; I Cor. 5:10-11, 6:9, 8:1-10; I Cor. 10:7,14,19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Gal. 5:20; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5; I Thess. 1:9; I Peter 4:3; I John 5:21; Rev. 2:14, 20, 21:8, 22:15.

Christians were persecuted and told that they would suffer for the faith [over 40 verses, but sample listed]: Matthew 10:34-38, 24:9-13; Luke 21:16; Acts 5:41, 7:54-60, 8:1, 9:16, 11:19, 13:50, 14:22; Romans 5:3, 8:17-18; Eph. 3:13; Phil. 1:29, 3:10; Col. 1:24; I Thess. 1:6, 2:2, 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Tim. 1:8-12, 2:3-9, 3:11; Hebrews 10:32-34, 13:3; James 5:10; I Peter 1:6-7, 2:19-21, 3:14-17, 4:15-19, 5:9-10; Rev. 2:10.

There were early believers in Rome [several verses]: Acts 28:14-18; Romans 1:1-15 (the entire letter of Romans was written to these believers).

Females had important roles in early Christianity [at least 16 verse references]: Acts 18:2,18, 24-26, 21:9; Romans 16:1-16; I Cor. 16:19; Phil. 4:2-3; Col. 4:15; 2 Tim. 4:19. 

Christians believed in immortality [over 36 verses]: Matthew 25:31-46; Mark 10:30; Luke 20:34-36; John 3:15-16, 4:36, 5:36, 6:54, 6:68, 10:28, 11:24-26, 12:25; Acts 13:48, 24:15; Romans 2:7, 5:21, 6:5,22-23; I Cor. 15:20-55; Phil. 3:10-11; I Thess. 4:11-18; I Tim. 6:12,19; 2 Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:2, 3:7; I John 1:2, 2:25, 5:11-13, 5:20; Jude 1:21; Hebrews 6:2; Rev. 20:4-5.

Christians believed in giving [there are many references, but 18 specific verses and two whole chapters on this subject, which include 39 verses]:  Matthew 6:1-4; Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-34; I Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. chapters 8-9; Phil. 4:15; Eph. 4:28; I Tim. 6:17-19; Heb. 13:16.

Claudius removed Jews from Rome [1 verse]: Acts 18:2.

People of all ranks and ages were Christians [61 total verses, including passages about how the younger and older believers should interact with each other. More verses on this could be included, but this gives us a good sample]: People in royal households (Luke 8:3, Phil. 4:22); Priests (Acts 6:7); Chief Rulers (John 12:42); A Eunuch (Acts 8:26-38); A Weaver (Acts 16:11-15); Chief Women in a city (Acts 17:4); Fishermen (Matthew 4:18-19); Tax Collectors (Matthew 10:3); Ruler of synagogue (Acts 18:8); Erastus, a city chamberlain (Romans 16:23); People from all sorts of backgrounds famous or infamous who repented of their sins joined the early community (see I Cor. 1:26-28). The old and the young were part of this community (Acts 20:9, I Tim. 4:12, 5:1-18, Titus 2:4-6, I Peter 5:5, I John 2:13-14). Entire households joined the faith together (Acts 16:30-34, 18:8, I Cor. 1:16, 2 Tim. 4:19). They early Christian leaders taught in the Temple and in homes (Acts 5:42).


Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org

Bibliography
Davis, H. Grady , Faherty, Robert L. , Sander, Emilie T. , Sarna, Nahum M. , Stendahl, Krister , Rylaarsdam, J. Coert , Cain, Seymour , Bruce, Frederick Fyvie , Fredericksen, Linwood , Grant, Robert M. and Flusser, David. “biblical literature”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Feb. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature. Accessed 28 November 2021.

Eusebius, Church History, 8.2.1, 4. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890. pp 324-325.

Hurtado, Larry W. “Archaeological Views: Early Christian Dilemma: Codex or Scroll?” Biblical Archaeology Review 44.6 (2018): 54, 56, 66.

Josephus. Jewish Antiquities. Translated by Ralph Marcus, vol. 6, Harvard University Press, 1958, pp vii-ix. 

Lucian. The Passing of Peregrinus. Translated by A.M. Harmon, vol. 1, Harvard University Press, 1961. pp ix-xiv.

Mendell, C.W. Tacitus: The Man and His Work. Yale University Press/Oxford University Press, 1957.

Nongbri, Brent. “How Old Are the Oldest Christian Manuscripts?” Biblical Archaeology Review 46.3 (2020): 38–45.

Reynolds, L.D. Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics. Clarendon Press, Oxford (1983). pp 316-322, 406-411.

Rolfe, John C. Suetonius and His Biographies. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (April 1913). pp 206-225.

Tacitus. The Histories translated by Clifford H Moore. The Annals translated by John Jackson, vol. 1, Harvard University Press, 1962. pp xiv-xvi.

“Who Owns the Codex Sinaiticus?” Biblical Archaeology Review 33.6 (2007): 32–43.

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