How reliable is the New Testament as a historical source?

If I read a newspaper story about the war in Iraq it would be sensible to assume that the article was biased, contained inaccuracies and contradicted similar reports in other papers. Yet this wouldn’t lead me to conclude that George Bush is a myth, on par with Santa Clause or that Iraq is no different to the battle for middle earth in Lord of the Rings. In other words, a source does not have to be infallible to contain some truth.

A good illustration of this is the sinking of the Titanic; some of the eyewitnesses claimed that the ship split into two before sinking whilst others said that it went down intact. Whether the Titanic split in two before sinking is a major thing for eyewitnesses to contradict each other and yet it is still rational to believe that the core claims about this event are historical. To put it bluntly, finding errors in the secondary detail or pointing out biases etc do not make a historical source unusable.

With that in mind, the central claims of Christianity do not stand or fall on issues such as whether the two genealogies contradict. If only a fraction of the New Testament is historical then atheists have some serious questions to answer. Thus my question is: how unreliable does the New Testament have to be before Christianity is not true and how do atheists go about demonstrating that, as a collection of historical source, it is that untrustworthy?

Posted: September 18th 2008

George Locke

Others will be more qualified than I to assess the Bible’s factual accuracy, but I have to address the challenge presented at the end of your question.

How unreliable does the New Testament have to be before Christianity is not true and how do atheists go about demonstrating that, as a collection of historical source, it is that untrustworthy?

The Bible makes claims. You expect me to believe them until they are proven false? This is backwards. You shouldn’t believe in Christianity until someone can demonstrate that its principal tenets are true (there is a God, Jesus was his son, there is a heaven and a hell, etc, etc).

Over and above disproving any specific religion, most atheists would rather convince people not to be so gullible in believing claims whose only apparent credence is derived from tradition.

Posted: September 23rd 2008

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Reed Braden www

A newspaper may contradict other papers and that doesn’t mean the story they both covered is a lie. This is because the newspapers are human products and are infallible. I write for my local newspaper and we misspell names, get dates wrong or even mis-attribute quotes all the time. However, The Roanoke Times does not claim to be the Divine Word of God, nor do we claim infallibility. When we make a mistake, we print a correction. Where’s God’s correction to Genesis? Where is the New Old Testament that says, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t actually attend the event before I wrote about it and I got some details wrong. Darwin was actually right. Sorry for the inconvenience”?

And the Bible does contain some truth. It can be found in the same way that truth in the newspapers can be found. If the New York Post prints a story about Britney Spears robbing a liquor store, you should ask to see the evidence. If there is no evidence or the evidence is very slight and it requires a logical leap to reach the conclusion that the crazy pop singer stole some bourbon at gunpoint from the single grainy photograph of a woman who might resemble Britney, it’s probably not true. You can test the newspaper stories with evidence just as you can test the claims of the Bible. Did Britney commit a felony? Where’s the evidence? Did Noah take all of the animals except the unicorns, dragons and dinosaurs on the Ark? Show me some evidence. It’s the same concept. You had a good analogy, but you just didn’t carry it far enough.

As for the Titanic, the ship went down in memorable history and we’ve seen the wreckage. We have evidence for it. The eyewitness accounts are nice to have, but we don’t need them to know that the ship is now a make-shift coral reef. However, the only “evidence” we have that Jesus existed is in the form of the same type of eye-witness account, except less reliable. They are a couple thousand years old, written long after the events occurred and were carried on by word of mouth for quite some time before being written. Eye-witness accounts are supplementary to evidence and do not comprise real evidence. Hundreds of people saw David Copperfield vanish the Statue of Liberty, but she’s still there, last I checked.

And as for the “clincher” of your argument—That maybe the Bible is flawed, but if just a fraction is accurate then Atheists are in serious trouble—it completely falls apart when you use scepticism and experiment to discover what parts of the Bible are demonstrably true or not. The Jews existed and were sacked frequently: Provable. A virgin gave birth to a guy who died and resurrected and flew to Heaven: Not provable. The core of Christianity does fall apart when a moderate dose of reason is applied to Biblical interpretation.

Posted: September 22nd 2008

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SmartLX www

Christianity could be true even if the entire Bible is a crock. If the authors got every detail wrong, it’s still possible that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected. There’s no possible disproof to be derived from the book alone, just like the truth of the events is unsupported without corroborating evidence in the real world.

The purpose of seeking and exposing inconsistencies in the New Testament is not to immediately dismiss the whole thing, because you can never do that. Rather it’s to determine the credibility of the book relative to other documents. It makes extraordinary claims, so to responsibly accept them its credibility would need to be at least on a par with other books from the period.

We’ve both answered your question from your perspective: no amount of unreliability in the NT would actually mean Christianity isn’t true. Now here’s the question from my perspective: just how reliable does the NT have to be to indicate to someone who doesn’t already believe that Christianity is true?

I don’t know exactly, but there are several criteria I tend to bring up when dismissing it.

  • No part of the NT is even claimed to have been written less than thirty years after Jesus’ death. That’s two generations on. This compares poorly with any other “contemporary account” you might name.
  • The various sources are all on the same side. The Bible was edited down to 66 books from over 400 candidates, including several alternative Gospels. Outside of verbal quotations, the testimony of unbelievers is never included. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, for example, but the Gospel of Thomas himself is heresy – and he believed in the end. As for contrasting, contrarily biased, conflicting accounts from Jews or Romans (analogous to accounts of the Iraq war by the Hussein propaganda machine, Iraqi soldiers/prisoners or, say, the Kurdish people), forget it.
  • There are many people in the stories who doubtless were real, for instance the priest Caiaphas and the judge Pontius Pilate. Through such people there are certainly some ties to reality. However, the external documents through which we know of these people make no reference to Jesus. Where we would most expect to see direct corroboration, there isn’t any. Jesus in Pilate’s court is the equivalent of Captain America fighting in WWII; it’s only mentioned in his own stories.

I fully accept that a fraction of the New Testament is historical. Pilate was real, Bethlehem was real, the Romans really occupied Israel, there really was a prophecy of a Messiah (confirmed by the mere existence of the Book of Isaiah). But even today, fiction can be inserted into real-world settings to give them an air of credibility. The known reality-based aspects of the New Testament inspire no credence to the reliability of the fantastical accounts one is required to swallow in order to accept the truth of Christianity.

Posted: September 21st 2008

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