The Truth is in the New Testament Too
As Christians, we can be confident that the Old Testament is reliable. And as we turn to the New Testament, we can be just as confident that we have the Word of God, faithfully transmitted over the centuries.
How the Word Was Communicated
While Jesus walked here on earth, His followers studied and learned from his actions and words. They were often mesmerized, confused and challenged by what they saw and heard. We don’t know how much (if anything) these eyewitnesses wrote down during this time. Did the disciples take notes? Did they keep a journal? If they did, there appears to be no remnant of their effort. In the oral learning culture of Palestine in the first century, “notes” would be a rare commodity. While Jesus was alive, there was no need to write down his words. The Word was WITNESSED in these incredible days, as men and women stood in awe of the Master, watching Him accomplish the miraculous and listening carefully to what He taught about God and eternal life.
During the years that followed His ascension, the apostles may not have written about Jesus immediately. Why? Well, a careful reading of the Scriptures will reveal that they truly believed that Jesus would return before there was ever a need for Scripture. They worked urgently to tell the world about Jesus, believing that He would return to judge the living and the dead within their lifetime. But as they aged and this failed to happen, they began to write down what they had seen so that the world would have a record. In the days of the apostles, the Word was HEARD, as the apostles preached to the world around them.
Following the deaths of the apostles, the early believers and leaders took the apostolic eyewitness writings and held them as sacred. They knew that the original eyewitnesses had vanished from the scene and they wanted to retain a faithful record of their testimony. From the earliest of times, these Christians coveted the New Testament writings that were written from approximately 45AD (the Book of James) to 90AD (the Book of Revelation). In the days of the early Church Fathers, the Word was READ, as the sacred Gospels and letters were carefully protected.
The Writings of the Apostles
The apostles themselves testified to the eyewitness validity of the New Testament. They considered their own writing to be authoritative Scripture because they understood their evidential role as eyewitnesses.
1 Peter 5:1
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed…
2 Peter 1:16-17
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
1 John 1:1-3
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life – and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us – what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us…
The apostles understood that their experience as eyewitnesses was unique and they called for these eyewitness accounts to be read by all believers. Paul recognized that both the Old Testament writings and the New Testament writings were sacred and God-given. He considered both to be Scripture. Look at what he writes to Timothy:
1 Timothy 5:17-18
“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’”
In 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul quoted both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 and referred to both passages as Scripture. It’s clear that the New Testament Gospels were already in place at the time of this writing, and it’s also clear that believers were reading these Gospels as scripture!
Peter also attested to Paul’s writings as Scripture in his own writings:
2 Peter 3:14-16
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
In addition to this, it is clear that the New Testament letters were being read and circulated among the churches as authoritative eyewitness Scripture and revelation from God:
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.
1 Thessalonians 5:27
I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
From the earliest of believers, hundreds of years before the Councils, Christians preserved the precious eyewitness testimony about Jesus, and they tested the Scriptures to make sure their growing collection was authentic and accurate. By the time of the Councils, a universal standard was accepted by orthodox Christians who wanted to determine which writings were the Word of God, and which were not. There were two areas of concern:
Was the text authored by an eyewitness or someone with immediate access to the eyewitnesses? (Could the text be trusted to reflect the truth about what happened? Was it uncorrupted both historically and doctrinally?)
Did the text reflect the Divine nature and purposes of God in a way that assisted God’s people in understanding Him better? (Was the text useful in teaching people about God? Was it understandable and accessible?)
The Earliest Church
Early in the history of Christianity, LONG before the formation of the Roman Catholic Church, Christians in three distinct and separate parts of the world began collecting eyewitness documents that they revered as Scripture. They earliest Christians trusted only the eyewitnesses who actually witnessed the life of Jesus. Each apostle reverently passed on what he had seen and heard. The disciples of the apostles then preserved the cherished testimony of the eyewitnesses and mentioned these sacred writings in their own correspondence and documents. While these men utilized other texts as well to encourage and edify their groups, the disciples of the eyewitnesses especially revered the eyewitness accounts that would someday become the New Testament. These they considered to be Scripture:
ROME: Clement (95AD) Affirmed 7 New Testament Books
Clement (of Rome) was a disciple of Paul, and in a letter he wrote to the Church in Corinth, he cited a number of passages that can be attributed to the Gospel of Mark, Matthew or John. In addition, it appears that Clement also had access to several of Paul’s letters, including Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians. Clement seems to have collected many of the New Testament eyewitness documents and held them in high regard. Perhaps more importantly, Clement believed that these documents were already known well enough by his readers to be recognized when quoted or alluded to in his letter.
ANTIOCH: Ignatius (110-115AD) Affirmed 7 to 16 New Testament Books
Ignatius was a student of the apostle John and he wrote two letters (one to the Church in Philadelphia and one to the Church in Smyrna) in which he borrowed phrases and alluded to material from the Gospels of Matthew, John and Luke. In addition, he also borrowed or alluded to several (if not all) of Paul’s letters. Like Clement, Ignatius appears to be collecting many of the New Testament eyewitness documents and holding them in great esteem. He is the first writer of this era to use the expression, “It is written” when quoting from these eyewitness documents; it’s clear that he thought of them as being ‘on par’ with the Scripture of the Old Testament. And like Clement, Ignatius also must have believed that these documents were already circulated and known well enough by his readers to be recognized by them when he quoted the texts.
SMYRNA: Polycarp (110AD) Affirmed 14 to 16 New Testament Books
Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John, and in writing a letter of his own to the Church in Philippi, he quotes or alludes to several books that are now in our New Testament, including Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter and 1 John. Some scholars observe additional references to 2 Timothy and 2 Corinthians. Like Ignatius, it is also clear that Polycarp believed that these New Testament documents were Scripture that was comparable to the Old Testament. In the twelfth chapter of his letter, he writes “In the sacred books…. as it is said in these Scriptures, ‘Be ye angry and sin not,’ and ‘Let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” quoting both Psalm 4:5 and Ephesians 4:26 as if they were both equally inspired.
From these three sources, one thing is certain: the New Testament books were already written and accepted as Scripture by the first disciples of the apostles. These disciples knew that the documents were the authentic eyewitness accounts and letters. They collected these books and wrote to others about them. From just these three early Church leaders and disciples of the eyewitnesses, 20 of the 27 books of the New Testament are affirmed (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter and 1 John). In addition, we have to remember that this generation of Christians may also have accepted many more of the New Testament writings than they happened to mention in their own letters. In any case, these select books, written by the eyewitnesses and preserved by their disciples, will become the New Testament we know today.
The Next Generation
Subsequent church leaders continued to collect the eyewitness accounts and letters, treating them with the utmost respect. The collections began to accumulate in three separate geographical areas, independent from one another. While some historical revisionists would like us to believe that the Roman Catholic Church conspired, controlled and created the canon of Scripture in the middle of the fourth century (i.e. The Da Vinci Code), this is NOT what actually happened. The canonical texts appeared within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses, were collected and coveted very quickly, and then became recognized as Scripture by the apostles and the generations that followed them. In fact, the first official list of accepted Scripture appears on the scene in approximately 170AD in what is now known as the “Muratorian Fragment”, a partial copy of an ancient text that was discovered in the Ambrosian Library in Milan in the 18th century. This document affirmed and acknowledged Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Jude, 1 John, 2 John and Revelation as Scripture written by reliable, apostolic eyewitnesses. The author of the Muratorian Fragment was also careful to warn his readers about Paul’s alleged letters to the Laodiceans and Alexandrians, and a document known as the “Apocalypse of Peter” (identifying these as forgeries). Here in the late 2nd century, in regions that span Europe and the Mediterranean, Christians are already in possession of the New Testament books and guarding the authenticity of the collection:
FRANCE: Irenaeus (185AD) Affirmed as Many as 24 New Testament Books
Irenaeus, grew up in Smyrna while Polycarp (the disciple of the apostle John) was the Bishop there. Irenaeus eventually became the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now called Lyons) and wrote an expansive volume called “Against Heresies” in 185AD. Throughout the many chapters of this text, he quoted the New Testament (over one thousand times) to make his case against a variety of heresies that were appearing on the scene. In quoting the New Testament documents, he referred to at least twenty-one of the books we presently possess in our Bible (including Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 1 John, 2 John and Revelation). But, in addition to this, scholars believe that Irenaeus alluded to a number of additional texts, including Hebrews, James and perhaps even 2 Peter. Irenaeus is silent with regard to Philemon, 3 John and Jude, although this does not necessarily mean that he was either unaware of the books or rejected them as inspired. Irenaeus also referred to the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of John, but no other 2nd century book related to Jesus was recognized as authentic.
ITALY: Hippolytus (220AD) Affirmed as Many as 24 New Testament Books
Hippolytus was born in Rome and became a disciple of Irenaeus. He was a prolific writer, and one of his most important works was a text known as “Refutation of All Heresies”. Over the course of his many known writings, Hippolytus acknowledged and affirmed most of the New Testament documents (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John, 2 John and Revelation). It also appears, however, that he was aware of 2 Peter and James, but he does not list them openly. In addition, Hippolytus quotes from Hebrews directly (and also the Shepherd of Hermas), but not as though they are Scripture.
EGYPT: Origen (225AD) Affirmed as Many as 27 New Testament Books
Origen of Alexandria was a brilliant Church leader who travelled greatly and was fully aware of the catalogue of differing views that existed related to Jesus. He was also fully aware of the teachings that existed within the Church from region to region. Perhaps for this reason, Origen’s use and affirmation of the eyewitness books and letters is significant. Even though late emerging texts were known to Origen, his many letters and writings fail to affirm heretical non-canonical works. Instead, Origen categorized the existing texts of the ancient world into three classes: the universally accepted eyewitness writings of the apostles, those books whose apostolic authorship was doubted, and those books that were clearly not the product of the original eyewitnesses. He acknowledged Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation as Scripture. He also acknowledged that some within the church had their doubts about Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, James, Jude, Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the Gospel of the Hebrews (a version of the Gospel of Matthew). While Origen believed the books in this second group were also reliable Scripture, he recognized and tolerated other views.
PALESTINE: Eusebius (324AD) Affirmed 26 New Testament Books
Eusebius was the Bishop of Cæsarea. Like Origen, Eusebius acknowledged a list of trustworthy apostolic writings, and he also divided his list into three categories. Eusebius’ first group included the universally accepted eyewitness accounts and letters of the apostles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation). His second group included those books that were contested. He divided the contested books into a superior and inferior group. The superior group included James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John. Eusebius maintained that these books should be considered Scripture, but he conceded that not everyone agreed on this issue. His second group of contested books included the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter. All other ancient texts related to Jesus were placed in the third category which Eusebius considered fraudulent.
We Could Reconstruct It
Many early church fathers wrote prolifically in their own effort to nurture and encourage the local churches and many of their writings still exist today. Imagine a scenario in which all our Bibles were removed from us. Imagine a regime coming in and taking away all our Scriptures (not only the ones that we have today, but also all the ancient transcripts, manuscripts, fragments and remnants). Imagine that ALL of these pieces of New Testament Scripture and documentation were destroyed and removed forever. What would we do as Christians?
Well, if all we had all the writings of the early Church Fathers, we could actually examine their own letters and reassemble our Scriptures from the places where the Church Fathers quoted the New Testament. As an example of this, some researchers have cited Sir David Dalrymple (1726 – 1792AD) a Scottish judge and historian who wrote three volumes on early Christian Church history called, “Remains of Christian Antiquity”. Dalrymple was an expert in the writings of the early Church. After careful examination of the writings of the Fathers he allegedly wrote, “…as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.” Even if this claim on the part of Dalrymple is false, one thing is clear from any contemporary study of the Early Church Fathers: the New Testament was written VERY early and accepted as Scripture by the early Church.
The Church Councils formed within a few hundred years of the life of Jesus. These Councils didn’t form to impose their version of Scripture on the rest of the world, but to sort out the truth from the growing distortions that were beginning to appear in the Church. All kinds of heresies were cropping up, and the Church recognized these distortions as false and dangerous. Many modern fictional writers point to some of the heretical literature from the 2nd to 4th century as if these writings were as true as the Scriptures (the Da Vinci Code is a good example), but the early Church recognized that these late distortions were not eyewitness accounts. What were they to do? Well, they simply met and confirmed the longstanding lists of books that had been handed down by the first eyewitnesses, rejecting those books that they knew to be false.
The Council of Laodicea
In 363 AD they stated that only the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were to be read in the churches.
The Council of Hippo
In 393AD they recognized the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
The Council of Carthage
In 397AD they affirmed that the canonical books alone were to be read in the churches.
Once we know HOW the New Testament was collected and formed, we have to move to the issue of its transmission. Can we trust that we have now what they had then? Well, it’s important to remember that the early Christians were Jews, and as such, they understood how to treat important scriptural writings. For that reason, tedious copying and maintenance efforts were always maintained on the writings that they considered foundational, life-saving and God-breathed, and we know that the earliest Christians were in possession of the New Testament and considered it to be Scripture!
There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. But are all these copies in strict agreement? No they are not, and we have to be very honest about that. But how do they differ, and do these variances in early copies indicate that error has crept into our New Testament Scriptures? The evidence clearly indicates that our scriptures are incredibly accurate. We, as Christians, believe that the original writings of the New Testament were God-Inspired, and without error. Period. We also believe that the copies we now have are God-inspired without significant error. We do not believe that these later copies are error free, but we believe they contain no errors of any significance at all. They are incredibly accurate and more than sufficient for us to understand everything that God wants us to know.
The Telegram Comparison
The transmission and copy variance of the earliest documents should NOT cause us any concern, because we have an incredibly large number of early documents and fragments to compare to one another. And the more comparison, the less error! Let me explain. Let’s say you get a telegram in the mail and it says:
“YDU WON THE $5000.00 GRAND PRIZE!”
Well, it’s pretty obvious that there is a grammatical copy error in the telegram. But do you understand what the telegram says? Would you still go to claim your prize? Of course, the small error does not change the meaning of the text. You still know what it says! Now, let’s say that the sender catches his error and tries to send you another corrected telegram:
“YOU WON THA $5000.00 GRAND PRIZE!”
Well, now he’s corrected the first error but included a different error. By simply comparing the two telegrams, you can clearly remove ALL error from the message. You understand that the first ‘D’ was supposed to be an ‘O’ and the later ‘A’ was supposed to be an ‘E’. If this guy sent you ten more telegrams and each contained a single error, it could be argued that all the telegrams are in error, but you know that you would have no doubt about what he was trying to tell you. Our New Testament scriptures are similar to this, but contain far, far less percentage error than this simple telegram!
Herodotus Verses God
Some have called the New Testament into question based on its antiquity and the presence of inconsequential copyist deviation, yet these same people would quickly accept all other ancient histories as true when they are far less verifiable. The Greek researcher and storyteller Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century BC) is considered to be the world’s first historian. In “The Histories”, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under Cyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius I the Great, culminating in king Xerxes’ expedition in 480 BCE against the Greeks. Secular historians believe that Herodotus’ work contains a reliable description of these events and of the people that the Persians conquered. Yet the work of Herodotus is not nearly as well documented as the work of the New Testament writers!
Our earliest copy of “The Histories” was written from 480 to 425BC, yet our earliest copy dates at 900AD. That is a 1,350 year gap! The earliest New Testament fragments date to within 25 to 50 years of the writing, and our earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament dates to within 300 years of the writing. There are only 8 ancient copies of “The Histories” to compare to one another, while there are over 24,000 ancient copies of the New Testament to compare to one another (to sort out the minor copyist errors). When doing this type of comparison with “The Histories” we find that there are an incredible number of lines that contradict each other (and raise doubt); so many in fact, that the entire document is reconstructed with what has been described as 0% certainty (related to the frequency in which comparable lines match). The New Testament, on the other hand, has only 40 lines in question (none of which concern the doctrines of the Christian Faith), resulting in what has been termed a 99.5% certainty. The New Testament Writings are extremely well attested.
But in addition to all of this, the New Testament, as it is delivered to us today, is incredibly honest in its presentation; far more honest than any other ancient text. If you were to open the pages of the New Testament in your Bible, for example, and read any given chapter of the text, you will see that it is well footnoted and marked in those areas where ancient manuscripts disagree. The differences are clearly listed and all the variable translations are footnoted for your honest comparison.
I challenge you to take a close look at these footnotes and see if the variances make any difference to the meaning of the text. While there are many variances in the early manuscripts, they are incredibly minor and they NEVER deal with the doctrines of the historic Christian Faith.
What the World Thinks and What We Know
Non-believers are concerned that our New Testament Scriptures cannot be trusted, but they’ve come to this concern without examining the evidence. As Christians, we KNOW that we have the most reliable and attested ancient documents. You can trust that, if nothing else, we have today what the ancients had to begin with. Jesus knew that his life would be recorded and transmitted to the world that followed Him. He also knew that these texts would be more than good writings. They would contain the truth of God. Listen to his prayer for us:
‘I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.
Jesus wants us to see the New Testament writings for what they are: the truth of God, written to a lost and dying world.
The Love Letter
God’s Word to us is His Love Letter. A single message of Grace and redemption from the Father who created it. His plan for our lives. His hope for our future. His free gift of Salvation and His desire to bring us home.
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