We’re often told that we came to possess the New Testament after an elaborate “game of telephone.” Which is to say, the information in the books is unreliable. The reason for my own agnosticism as a teenager was due, in a large part, to accepting misinformation about the authorship of the New Testament books, their transmission to the modern era, and when they were written. Yet, after research, I realized the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament books is very strong.
Dismissing The Evidence
I remember the day I announced my skepticism about the Bible very well. I was walking home from school with a group of friends. We were talking about our religious beliefs. I announced (rather triumphantly), that while my mother was Christian, I wasn’t sure I could trust the Bible because the Council of Nicaea arbitrarily decided which books would end up in the Bible.
Looking back at that time in my life, I get pretty embarrassed. I thought I knew so much, but I really just bought into what I was told about the Bible. Almost shamefully, it took me reaching adulthood before I started to really investigate the claims of Christianity. While, it’s only been a mere four years since my journey began, I’m continually impressed by strength of the evidence for the Christian faith and in particular, the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament books.
I recently finished Samuel P. Tregelles’, “A Lecture on The Historic Evidence of the Authorship and Transmission of the Books of the New Testament”. The book was originally published in 1851 and it contains a plethora of information that has been largely forgotten. In fact, I was blown away by some of the facts that we tend to overlook in our age.
I won’t discuss the reliability of the Gospels here. J. Warner Wallace has done a very thorough job of that at his Cold Case Christianity website. I will however, relate some of the facts regarding Paul’s Epistles and the general reliability of the New Testament. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but as Tregelles writes:
“I wish, if possible, to restore the historic grounds of Christian evidence to their proper place; they are, I am persuaded, a citadel which will ever be found impregnable…”
The Canon in Muratori
Prior to reading Tregelles’ book, I never heard of the Canon in Muratori. To those unfamiliar, the Canon in Muratori is a document that was discovered by an Italian scholar and published in 1740. It is believed to be, as Tregelles writes, “the earliest notice of any collected books of the New Testament.”
The importance of the fragment cannot be understated. As Tregelles explains, “…this ancient canon recognizes the four gospels, the Acts, thirteen Epistles of St. Paul, and, in short, all of the New Testament books, except the epistle to the Hebrews, that of James, those of Peter and perhaps the second or third of John…”
Tregelles goes on to point out an interesting fact, “The author of this list of books…mentions ‘the Shepherd, written very recently in our own time, in the city of Rome, by Hermas, while Pius, his brother, was bishop of the see of Rome.’
“This incidental remark supplies us with the date of the writer. Pius the first, bishop of Rome, died about the middle of the second century; he appears to have succeeded to the episcopate about the year 140. Thus, the list of New Testament books, which we have under consideration, cannot have been written at a much later period. And not only so, but as the writer speaks of the episcopate of Pius the first as being in his own days, his testimony reaches back as far and probably farther.
“We are thus able to trace back the lists of the New Testament books almost to the apostolic age: the author of the Canon in Muratori…lived in the days of some who had been in part contemporaries of the Apostle John.”
When it comes to Paul’s letters, an interesting point that Tregelles brings up, one that I’ve always overlooked, was that when it comes to authenticating ancient letters, there is a writer and the party to whom the letter is addressed. As Tregelles states, “…the testimony which connects any particular document with a community to which it was addressed, possess a peculiar force.”
For example, “St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians was one of solemn reprehension, and yet that Church held it fast as genuine – a plain proof that they knew it to be such…The Epistle was an evidence that condemned them, and yet they preserved it.” In other words, if it were a fake, why would the church at Corinth keep a document that condemned them?
Those same Epistles went into wide circulation in the Church throughout the Roman empire, East and West, and were read habitually and publicly. Early Church Fathers like Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus use, quote and attribute those Epistles to Paul.
More to the point, Tregelles concludes, “We are thus able to trace the common use of a collection of Epistles, bearing St. Paul’s name, to an early part of the second century; that is, in the days of the many who were then still living, who had belonged to the Church while it was still possessed of apostolic training.”
He alludes to the fact, that the Epistles of Paul were in such widespread circulation during a time where the Church “still possessed of apostolic training”, they could have (and would have) been discredited by those who would have known them to be fakes.
No Need To Fear Persistent Criticisms
Criticisms of the authorship and transmission of the New Testament books will no doubt persist. However, we do not need to fear them. The historical reliability of the New Testament books is, as Tregelles writes, “a citadel which will ever be found impregnable.”
This has been proved over and over again as critics for the last two thousand years have continually tried to attack their authenticity, and failed. To those critics, Tregelles writes in a frankness that seems only afforded to those living in the 1800’s:
“…the mass of their objections and arguments are nothing but a repetition of refuted assertions, utterly devoid of originality, and marking no superiority of mind whatever: these leaders would not impose so easily on their followers, had they to do with persons tolerably well acquainted with what had been thought and written on the subject long ago, or with those who are not willing to be deceived.”