10 Things You Should Know about the Reliability of the New Testament Writers
This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. The New Testament writers included embarrassing details about themselves.
One of the ways historians can tell whether an author is telling the truth is to test what he says by “the principle of embarrassment.” This principle assumes that any details embarrassing to the author are probably true. Why? Because the tendency of most authors is to leave out anything that makes them look bad. How does the New Testament measure up to the principle of embarrassment? Let’s put it this way: If you and your friends were concocting a story that you wanted to pass off as the truth, would you make yourselves look like dim-witted, uncaring, rebuked, doubting cowards? Of course not. But that’s exactly what we find in the New Testament.
If you were a New Testament writer, would you include these embarrassing details if you were making up a story? Would you write that one of your primary leaders was called “Satan” by Jesus, denied the Lord three times, hid during the crucifixion, and was later corrected on a theological issue? Would you depict yourselves as uncaring, bumbling cowards, and the women—whose testimony was not even admissible in court—as the brave ones who stood by Jesus and later discovered the empty tomb? Would you admit that some of you (the eleven remaining disciples) doubted the very Son of God after he had proven himself risen to all of you? Of course not.
In short, we don’t have enough faith to believe that the New Testament writers included all of those embarrassing details in a made-up story. The best explanation is that they were really telling the truth—warts and all.
2. The New Testament writers included embarrassing details and difficult sayings of Jesus.
The New Testament writers are also honest about Jesus. Not only do they record self-incriminating details about themselves, they also record embarrassing details about their leader, Jesus, that seem to place him in a bad light. Jesus is not believed by his own brothers (John 7:5), is thought to be a deceiver (John 7:12), is deserted by many of his followers (John 6:66), turns off “Jews who had believed in him” (John 8:30-31) to the point that they want to stone him (v. 59), and is called a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), a “madman” (John 10:20), and “demon-possessed” (Mark 3:22; John 7:20, 8:48).
This is certainly not a list of events and qualities the New Testament writers would choose if they were trying to depict Jesus as the perfect, sinless God-man. Nor are these qualities congruent with the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would come to free them from political oppression.
In addition to embarrassing details, there are several difficult sayings attributed to Jesus that the New Testament writers would not have included if they were making up a story about Jesus being God. Again, the best explanation is that the New Testament writers were not playing fast and loose with the facts but were extremely accurate in recording exactly what Jesus said and did.
I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist
Norman L. Geisler, Frank Turek
Norman Geisler and Frank Turek argue that Christianity requires the least faith of all worldviews because it is the most reasonable. A valuable aid to those interested in examining the reasonableness of the Christian faith.
3. The New Testament writers left in demanding sayings of Jesus.
If the New Testament writers were making up a story, they certainly didn’t make up a story that made life easier for them. This Jesus had some very demanding standards. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, does not appear to be a human invention. All of the commands in it are difficult or impossible for human beings to keep and seem to go against the natural best interests of the men who wrote them down. They certainly are contrary to the desires of many today who want a religion of spirituality that has no moral demands.
4. The New Testament writers carefully distinguished Jesus’s words from their own.
Even though quotation marks did not exist in first-century Greek, the New Testament writers distinguished Jesus’s words very clearly. Most red-letter editions of the Bible are identical, illustrating how easy the New Testament writers made it to see what Jesus said and what he didn’t say.
Why do we cite this as evidence of their trustworthiness? Because it would have been very easy for the New Testament writers to solve first century theological disputes by putting words into Jesus’s mouth. After all, if you were making up the “Christianity story” and trying to pass it off as the truth, wouldn’t you simply make up more quotes from Jesus to convince stubborn people to see things your way? Think how convenient it would have been for them to end all debate on controversial issues such as circumcision, obeying the Law of Moses, speaking in tongues, women in the church, and so forth by merely making up quotes from Jesus! Instead of pulling rank in this way, the New Testament writers seem to stay true to what Jesus said and didn’t say.
5. The New Testament writers include events related to the resurrection that they would not have invented.
In addition to the inclusion of embarrassing details regarding themselves and Jesus, the New Testament writers record events related to the resurrection that they would not have inserted if they had invented the story. These include:
The Burial of Jesus—The New Testament writers record that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish ruling council that had sentenced Jesus to die for blasphemy. This is not an event they would have made up.
The First Witnesses—All four Gospels say women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb and the first to learn of the Resurrection. One of those women was Mary Magdalene, who Luke admits had been demon-possessed (Luke 8:2). This would never be inserted in a made-up story. Not only would a once-demon-possessed person make a questionable witness, but women in general were not considered reliable witnesses in that first-century culture. In fact, a woman’s testimony carried no weight in a court of law. So if you were making up a resurrection story in the first century, you would avoid women witnesses and make yourselves—the brave men—the first ones to discover the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. Citing the testimony of women—especially demon-possessed women—would only hurt your attempt to pass off a lie as the truth.1
6. The New Testament writers include more than thirty historically confirmed people in their writings.
This is a critical point that bears repeating. The New Testament documents cannot have been invented because they contain too many historically confirmed characters. The New Testament writers would have blown their credibility with their contemporary audiences by implicating real people in a fictional story, especially people of great notoriety and power.
7. The New Testament writers include divergent details.
Critics are quick to cite the apparently contradictory Gospel accounts as evidence that the Gospels can’t be trusted for accurate information. For example, Matthew says there was one angel at the tomb of Jesus while John mentions two. Isn’t this a contradiction that blows the credibility of these accounts? No, exactly the opposite is true: divergent details actually strengthen the case that these are eyewitness accounts. How so?
First, let’s point out that the angel accounts are not contradictory. Matthew does not say there was only one angel at the tomb. The critic has to add a word to Matthew’s account to make it contradict John’s.2 But why did Matthew mention only one if two angels were really there? For the same reason two different newspaper reporters covering the same event choose to include different details in their stories. Two independent eyewitnesses rarely see all the same details and will never describe an event in exactly the same words. They’ll record the same major event (i.e., Jesus rose from the dead), but may differ on the details (i.e., how many angels were at his tomb). In fact, when a judge hears two witnesses giving exactly the same word-for-word testimony, what does that judge rightly assume? Collusion—the witnesses got together beforehand to make their stories agree.
So it’s perfectly reasonable that Matthew and John differ—they are both recording eyewitness testimony.
The best explanation is that the New Testament writers were not playing fast and loose with the facts but were extremely accurate in recording exactly what Jesus said and did.
8. The New Testament writers challenge their readers to check out verifiable facts, even facts about miracles.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares that he previously performed miracles for them. Speaking of his own qualifications as an apostle—someone who speaks for God—Paul reminds the Corinthians, “The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance” (2 Cor. 12:12).
Now why would Paul write this to the Corinthians unless he really had done miracles for them? He would have destroyed his credibility completely by asking them to remember miracles that he never did for them! The only plausible conclusion is that 1) Paul really was an apostle of God, 2) he therefore really had the ability to confirm his apostleship by performing miracles, and 3) he had displayed this ability openly to the Corinthians.
9. New Testament writers describe miracles like other historical events: with simple, unembellished accounts.
Embellished and extravagant details are strong signs that a historical account has legendary elements. The New Testament resurrection accounts contain nothing like
this. The Gospels give matter-of-fact, almost bland descriptions of the
If the resurrection were a made-up story designed to convince skeptics, then the New Testament writers certainly would have made their accounts longer with more detail. Moreover, they probably would have said that they witnessed Jesus physically rising from the dead. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t even say anything about the dramatic theological implications of the Resurrection, and John reports those implications in just one sentence (John 20:31). This point about the theological restraint of the Gospel writers deserves amplification. It indicates that the Gospel writers were concerned about getting the history correct, not inventing some new kind of theology.
10. The New Testament writers abandoned their long-held sacred beliefs and practices, adopted new ones, and did not deny their testimony under persecution or threat of death.
Finally, in addition to abandoning long-held sacred institutions and adopting new ones, the New Testament writers suffered persecution and death when they could have saved themselves by recanting.
If they had made up the resurrection story, they certainly would have said so when they were about to be crucified (Peter), stoned (James), or beheaded (Paul). But no one recanted—eleven out of the twelve were martyred for their faith (the only survivor was John, who was exiled to the Greek island of Patmos). Why would they die for a known lie?
So we have all these reasons to support the idea that the New Testament writers relentlessly stuck to the truth. And why wouldn’t they? What would motivate them to lie, embellish, or exaggerate anyway? What did they possibly have to gain? They only gained persecution and death for testifying as they did. In other words, the New Testament writers had every motive to deny New Testament events, not to invent, embellish, or exaggerate them. Again, it wasn’t as if they needed a new religion! When Jesus arrived, most of the New Testament writers were devout Jews who thought that Judaism was the one true religion and they were God’s chosen people. Something dramatic must have happened to jolt them out of their dogmatic slumbers and into a new belief system that promised them nothing but earthly trouble. In light of all this, we don’t have enough faith to be skeptics concerning the New Testament.
- It’s interesting to note that the creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 does not include the women as eyewitnesses. Perhaps that’s because the apostles recognized that a mention of women would add no further credibility to the fourteen male eyewitnesses specifically named there.
- See Geisler and Howe, When Critics Ask, 21.
This article is adapted from I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek.
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