The New Testament: Can I Trust It?
by Rusty Wright and Linda Raney Wright
“How can any well-educated person believe the New Testament? It was written so long after the events it records that we can’t possibly trust it as historically reliable.” This is a common question on the university campus and deserves an honest answer.
How does one determine the authenticity of an ancient book? C. Sanders, a military historian, outlines three basic tests used by historians and literary critics. These are the internal, external and bibliographic tests. Let’s consider briefly how the New Testament stands up to each one.
The Internal Test
Here our question concerns the trustworthiness of the writers as revealed by the text itself. One of the chief issues is whether or not we have eyewitness testimony. The New Testament accounts of the life of Christ were written by eyewitnesses or by people relating the accounts of the eyewitnesses of the actual events. John wrote, “what we have seen and heard [concerning Christ], we proclaim to you also.” Peter stated that he and his associates were “eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Luke claimed that his gospel was based on accounts compiled from eyewitnesses. In a court of law, eyewitness testimony is the most reliable kind.
Another issue in the internal test is the consistency of the reports. If two writers present testimony that is contradictory, doubt is cast on the integrity of one or both records.
Many have charged that the New Testament contains contradictions. To deal with such charges, it is important to understand that “contrary” is defined by Webster as “a proposition so related to another that, though both may be false, they cannot both be true.” Thus, the statement, “Joe and Bill are in this room” contradicts the statement, “Only Joe is in this room.” It does not, however, contradict the statement, “Joe is in this room.” Omission does not necessarily constitute contradiction.
With this in mind, consider several alleged New Testament contradictions. Some observe that Luke writes of two angels at the tomb of Jesus after the resurrection while Matthew mentions “an angel.” The observation of the statements is accurate, but the interpretation of them as contraries is not. If Matthew explicitly stated that only one angel was present at that time, the two accounts would be dissonant. As it is, they are harmonious.
Others note an apparent discrepancy in the accounts of the birth of Jesus. Hans Conzelmann, a German theologian, writing of Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity, states that “in every detail they disagree.” He focuses on apparent geographical inconsistencies.
Simple observation shows that the two accounts do differ. Luke tells of Joseph and Mary starting in Nazareth and traveling to Bethlehem (for the census and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem). He then records the family’s return to Nazareth. Matthew’s account begins with the couple in Bethlehem (and Jesus’ birth there) and records their flight into Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath, and relates their travel to Nazareth after Herod’s death.
Contradictory vs. Complementary
Conzelmann regards these details as contradictory, but are they? The Gospels never claim to be exhaustive records of the life of Christ. Any biographer must of necessity be selective. Could not Matthew have chosen to omit the census journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Luke the flight into Egypt? As such, the accounts are complementary, rather than contradictory…
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