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The Historical Reliability of the New Testament

The Historical Reliability of the New Testament


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Published by emmzee
Explores reasons why it's reasonable to believe that the New Testament is a trustworthy historical document. Addresses common criticisms as well as presents five historical tests and explores how the New Testament fares when these tests are applied to it.
Explores reasons why it's reasonable to believe that the New Testament is a trustworthy historical document. Addresses common criticisms as well as presents five historical tests and explores how the New Testament fares when these tests are applied to it.

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Published by: emmzee on Jun 07, 2008
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A third objection is that the New Testament documents (and early oral traditions) have
been passed on so many times over hundreds of years that errors have inevitably crept in and
corrupted the text. The example of the “telephone game” illustrates this objection: a message is
whispered to the first person in a chain, who whispers it to the person beside them, and so on,
until by the end of the game the message the last person hears is nothing like the original (to
comedic effect). For example, Shirley McLean, a popular new-age teacher, was speaking on the
Larry King show when she offhandedly brushed aside the Bible, saying it had been changed and
retranslated so many times that it is impossible to be confident in its accuracy. King agreed,

affirming that “Everyone knows that.”1

It should first be made clear that the New Testament, while of course copied and recopied
many times, has not, in modern translations at least, gone through a process of multiple
successive translations. The English versions that we read today (such as the NIV, NRSV, ESV, etc)
have all been translated directly from the original Hebrew and Greek (and occasionally Aramaic)
into English by teams of trained and knowledgeable scholars.2

For example, the NIV (the most

popular modern translation3

) was translated directly from the original languages by a team of over
100 scholars spanning six countries and over 20 different denominations.4

The telephone game analogy quickly breaks down when we examine it beyond the fact that
before the New Testament text began to be translated the message was transmitted orally. First,
we should keep in mind that unlike modern times, the culture in which Jesus lived and preached
was primarily an oral culture.5

Most people at that time could not read or write.6


1 Gregory Koukl, “Is the New Testament Text Reliable?,” n.p. Cited 12 March 2007. Online:

2 Groothuis, On Jesus, 13.
3 “More than 65 percent of the participating leaders named the NIV as their preferred Bible in a survey conducted by
the National Association of Evangelicals.” Jennifer Riley, “NIV Bible Tops List by Evangelical Leaders,” The
Christian Post
, n.p. Cited 17 May 2008. Online:
4 International Bible Society, “Background of the New International Version (NIV) Bible,” n.p. Cited 25 September
2007. Online: http://www.ibs.org/niv/background.php
5 Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), 72-73.


having a good memory was an important and necessary skill (see the later section Eyewitness
Testimony for more on this point). Having a good memory was especially important for Jewish
teachers (although it was of course important for everyone).

Early Christian beliefs were publicly preached and taught among large groups of people7
which shows how the transmission of the New Testament differs from the telephone game, since
in the game the message is passed down linearly and secretly from one person to another. The
participants in the game never have the chance to converse with each-other to clarify the
message, nor do they have the opportunity to have the message repeated.8

The message itself
being passed along in a game setting is often obscure and lacking in context, whereas the New
Testament message would be transmitted in context. Evans agrees with this analysis, commenting:

“Unlike the telephone game, this is a community effort … This was a living tradition that the

community discussed and was constantly remembered because it was normative, it was precious,

they lived by it.”9

Here’s the way that stories are orally transmitted in Middle Eastern culture:

The setting is informal, not that of a school or academy. But the traditions are carefully
controlled. For one thing, while any member of the village community should be
capable of telling the stories correctly, there are generally recognized reciters for each
story, usually more prominent men in the village. Further, only those who have grown
up in the village hearing the stories are entitled to recite them. Stories are recited in
public, and so are subject to the corrective scrutiny of the whole community.10

Since such high value was placed on community in the early church, there was plenty of
opportunity for others to correct mistakes in written manuscripts. The disciples themselves were

6 Only 2-3% of people in agrarian societies of NT times were literate. John J. Pilich & Bruce J. Malina (Eds),
Handbook of Biblical Social Values (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc, 1998), 5.
7 For example, Peter in Acts 2:14-41; Stephen in Acts 6:8-10, 7:2-53; Paul in Acts 9:20-22, 13:16-41, etc.
8 Daniel B. Wallace in Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, 81.
9 Evans in Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, 58.
10 France, The Evidence for Jesus, 110.


active in the early community to correct the oral traditions. Some of these disciples would later
pen some of the New Testament documents themselves. (See Eyewitness Testimony below for

elaboration of this point.) The information was passed down through “multiple streams,” not just

a single stream, and thus the chances for corruption are minimized.11

Also unlike the telephone game, early Christian scribes (many of whom, like the twelve
disciples, were Jewish and thus would have been aware of the long history and importance of
accurately copying Scripture) were also writing down the messages, not whispering them. The Old
Testament prophets were instructed to not just hear and recite God's word but to write it down.12

Then, once the text was written down, the transmission of the text was in written form, not
verbal, and a trail of manuscripts allows us to refute the theory that corruption occurred during its
written transmission.13

We have the manuscript evidence to see that, while there are variations
between the copies, the general message (and in most cases each specific word) which they
present has not been lost. (See Manuscript Evidence: A Mountain of Manuscripts below for
elaboration of these topics.)

11 Wallace in Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, 81.
12 Ex. Jeremiah 30:2, Isaiah 30:8, Exodus 34:27; Steven Masood, The Bible and the Qur'an: A Question of Integrity
(Atlanta: Authentic Media, 2007 (Originally published by OM Publishing, India, 2001)), 60-62.
13 Koukl, “Is the New Testament Text Reliable?,” n.p.


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