Evidence that the New Testament is Historically Reliable

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.


The New Testament (NT) makes some amazing claims. It contains the life and message of a man named Jesus who claimed to be God in the flesh. Supposedly He had supernatural abilities; not the least of which was His own resurrection. The NT also claims His death on a cross paid for the sins of every man, woman, and child. To whoever would trust in this message the NT promises forgiveness, freedom, and reconciliation with God.

If that isn’t enough, the NT then asks us to literally bet our lives on these bold claims. But what if we devote our lives to following Jesus and it all turns out to be a farce? No one wants to live for a lie. Because there is so much at stake, many question whether the NT is a reliable description of what actually happened so long ago. Was it really based on eyewitness accounts, people that saw it with their own eyes? Did they tell the truth about what they saw? Have others altered it over the years? These are good questions that must be answered if we are to be fully confident Jesus is the Savior of the world. This paper will discuss the substantial evidence that shows the NT is historically reliable.

What the Experts Say

Do only the ignorant and uneducated believe the NT accounts? The answer is a resounding “no.” Consider Simon Greenleaf, a professor at Harvard Law School. His most famous work, a Treatise on the Law of Evidence, was used as a standard textbook in American law for decades. His expertise was determining the truth through the evaluation of evidence. Originally skeptical of the NT, Greenleaf set out to prove the resurrection of Jesus was myth. After his investigation he concluded the eyewitnesses were reliable and that Jesus did rise from the dead.1

Another example is Bruce Metzger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He authored or edited fifty books, many of which deal with the historicity of the New Testament and are mandatory reading in many universities and seminaries. According to Metzger, only one half of one percent of the NT we have today is in question, leaving 99.5 percent intact.2

While it is encouraging to hear from qualified experts, we must remember that truth does not lie in expert opinion. We must delve further to determine what specific evidence led these scholars to believe the NT is historically reliable.

What the Evidence Says

Evidence that the NT was Written by Jesus’ Disciples and Their Associates

The NT claims to be based on eyewitness testimony. Peter said “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” (2 Pet. 1:16).3 There are many books from the ancient world that lie about their authorship, a practice called pseudepigrapha. Some people used this technique deceptively to promote their ideas. If someone did not have much clout, he would assign his work to a famous character of the past to give it more authority. According to Donald Guthrie, another reason for this was “to describe not what the great men had said but what the commonplace people thought they would have said.”4 In other words, they wanted to provide a fictional commentary on what a hero of the past might say about a current topic.

Guthrie goes on to say, “While these motives led to the widespread production of forged epistles in the Greek secular world, the number of pseudepigraphic letters in Jewish and Christian religious literature is surprisingly scant.”5 When someone in the early church attempted such a thing, even with good motives, they were severely reprimanded. A “presbyter of the province of Asia, was not only condemned for this practice but was also deprived of his office”.6 He wrote a letter, sometimes referred to as 3 Corinthians, “to give what he conceived to be Paul’s answer to contemporary errors.”7 Guthrie continues “it seems evident that the writer of such a work was not considered fit to hold office in a Christian church, despite the fact that he claimed to have done it from the highest motive, for love of Paul.”8  

There is solid evidence that gives the NT writers credibility that they were the true authors and eyewitnesses of what they recorded. The first evidence is how accurate the authors are with the details of the time during which they lived, details we know are true from history and archaeology. The book of Acts in the NT is a powerful example. The author, Luke, was precise in his descriptions and recorded many details such as the names and titles of obscure political rulers, the geography of the areas they traveled such as travel routes and weather conditions, and unusual cultural practices they encountered such as religious beliefs and even slang words people used for other races. Historian Colin Hemer records eighty-four of these accurate details found in Acts.9 Establishing Luke as the true author of Acts also provides credibility to the Gospel accounts since he wrote the Gospel of Luke as well.   

Recording these details accurately gives these authors a tremendous amount of credibility that they were truly eyewitnesses. Unlike in modern times where we have access to encyclopedias and the internet, in the ancient world this task would be virtually impossible if they were not there experiencing these things themselves. Consider the opposite situation; if Acts had all of these details wrong no one would take it seriously as a historical document.

The second indicator that the authors of the NT were the eyewitnesses they claimed to be is the substantial verification of their accounts found in non-Christian sources. Habermas said Jesus has “one of the most mentioned and most substantiated lives in ancient times.”10 The following ancient historians and writers corroborate many things found in NT. These are non-Christians that are just describing events they knew took place.

Tacitus, a Roman historian, said Christ “suffered the extreme penalty during he reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.”11 Emperor Tiberius reigned from AD 14 until AD 37. The superstition he mentioned may be an indirect reference to the disciples’ claim Jesus rose from the dead since the movement seemed to wane but then broke out again after his death.

Pliny the Younger was a Roman author and administrator who served as the governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Pliny wrote letters to Emperor Trajan to make sure his way of handling Christians was appropriate in light of the emperor’s prohibition against political associations. If they would not deny their faith and offer adoration to the emperor’s image, he executed them. His “tenth book, written around AD 112, speaks about Christianity in the province of Bithynia and also provides some facts about Jesus.”12 In it he says the Christians “were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god.”13

Josephus was a Jewish court historian for emperor Vespasian and died AD 97. Although the authenticity of his account has been disputed, “there are good indications that the majority of the text is genuine.”14 An Arabic manuscript was discovered and released to the public in 1972. Many of the disputed portions were not found in this manuscript, thus providing greater support for the trustworthiness of his basic message. The part concerning Jesus, taken from this Arabic manuscript, reads:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.15

Lastly, a second century Greek satirist named Lucian criticized followers of Jesus for being too gullible in their beliefs. He said “Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.”16

From these and other non-Christian sources we can “provide a broad outline of most of the major facts of Jesus life from “secular” history alone.”17 This, combined with the historical accuracy of the NT, provides tremendous support for believing the NT writers were who they claimed to be: Jesus’ disciples and their associates who were eyewitnesses of the events they describe.

Evidence that the NT Authors Told the Truth

It is not enough to establish that the NT writers were eyewitnesses. Their historical accuracy and corroboration by other sources give them tremendous credibility, but they could have made up the miraculous parts of their story, inserting lies or exaggerations amongst otherwise historically accurate information. There are four convincing reasons to believe they were telling the truth, even when they recorded supernatural events such as Jesus rising from the dead.

The first reason is that there is no sign of deceit among the four gospels. They tell essentially the same story but with small reconcilable differences. This is exactly what we would expect if different eyewitnesses were describing the same event from their own perspective. Large differences between them would cause us to question their truthfulness. Also, if there were absolutely no differences in their descriptions then we would have to wonder if they got together and colluded to tell the same fabricated story. These are important criteria in modern courtrooms for determining the truthfulness of an event when there are multiple eyewitnesses.

Having reconcilable differences means they differ in their descriptions in such a way we can still reconcile the accounts to see how all are true. For example, each gospel writer records that the sign above the cross had a different inscription. Matthew said that it read “this is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37), Mark said “the king of the Jews” (Mark 15:26), Luke said “this is the king of the Jews” (Luke 23:38), and John said “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19). This difference is reconcilable because John goes on to say that “it was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek” (John 19:20). There were three unique inscriptions worded slightly different. In addition, Mark may have recorded the inscription from the same language as Luke except that Mark only recorded part of it. Telling only part of the message is not lying or making an error, especially when the part he left out, “this is”, is so insignificant. This is just one of many small reconcilable differences found amongst the Gospels: a strong indicator they were telling the truth. 

The second sign of truthfulness, specifically in relation to the claim of Jesus’ resurrection, is that the disciples and other followers were transformed from cowards hiding from the Roman authorities immediately after the crucifixion into courageous leaders boldly proclaiming the gospel message in just a short time later. Nothing but seeing the resurrected Savior with their own eyes could have given them this type of confidence. Even some who were complete skeptics before His death, including Jesus own brother James, became devoted followers after they saw His resurrected body (1 Cor. 15:7).

The third indication that the NT writers were telling the truth is that they suffered tremendously for their beliefs, many of them becoming martyrs. Many people die for their faith; we hear of suicide bombers almost every day willing to blow themselves up for their beliefs. While this does not prove their beliefs are true, it does prove they think their beliefs are true. Those that say Jesus’ disciples were lying have to explain why they were willing to die for a lie because the fact is liars do not make good martyrs.18 If the NT writers were lying about what they saw, they certainly would not have been willing to die for it because no one will give their life for something they know is not true.

The fourth evidence that the NT writers were telling the truth is that they were telling their story and writing it down very soon after the actual events took place. This is important because myths take time to develop; time for all the eyewitnesses to die off. For example, the Greeks turned many of their hero’s into legends. “Alexander the Great is said to have born of a virgin and later in his life to have accepted accolades as a god.”19 The critical question is how much time elapsed between the actual events and when the stories were first told. In Alexander’s case, his life “was elaborated and embellished for a period of more than 1,000 years; the earliest sources portray him as quite different from the mythological figure into which later legends transformed him. Alexander’s most reliable ancient (second-century) biographer, Arrian of Nicomedia, says nothing of his ‘virgin birth’.”20 The shorter the time between the events and the telling and recording of them, the less likely they are to be myth.

Of the four gospels, John places the most emphasis on the deity of Christ. For this reason many critics used to date its writing much later after the events took place, even as late as AD 200. They did this to fit their theory that Jesus’ claim to be God, proven by his miraculous powers, was a legend that grew over several generations. That is until the early twentieth century when a papyrus fragment of John called the John Ryland Papyri was found. Many prominent paleographers have said it originated between AD 100 and AD 150. Keep in mind that this is just a copy and so the original had to be written before this time. The result of this discovery was that the “more extreme theories have been rejected and the majority of scholars are inclined to accept a date somewhere between AD 90 and 110.”21 As for the other gospels “most critical scholars date Mark about AD 65-70, and Matthew and Luke about AD 80-90.”22

As impressive as this is, we can go back even farther. Besides the narrative accounts like the Gospels and the book of Acts, the rest of the NT is made up of letters written by the disciples and other early leaders. These letters contain verbal creeds: short summary statements that were easy to memorize and probably recited during worship. These creeds were constructed and passed on before the NT was actually written. “In short, these creeds were communicated verbally years before they were written and hence they preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50. Therefore, in a real sense, the creeds preserve pre-New Testament material, and are our earliest sources for the life of Jesus.”23 Examples of these creeds can be found in Rom. 1:3-4, 10:9; Phil. 2:6; 1 Tim. 3:16 which rhymes and some think was sung by the early church, 6:13; 2 Tim. 2:8; and 1 John 4:2. Even Bultmann admits that the creed found in Rom. 4:25 was “a statement that had evidently existed before Paul and had been handed down to him.”24 Habermas lists forty-one things these creeds tell us about the life and message of Jesus.25

The most important creed is 1 Cor. 15:3-4 which reads “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” “That this confession is an early Christian, pre-Pauline creed is recognized by virtually all critical scholars across a very wide theological spectrum.”26 Even “numerous critical theologians date it from three to eight years after Jesus’ crucifixion.”27 It would have been very difficult to embellish the story so soon after the events because there were too many eyewitnesses still alive, including those opposed to Christianity who could prove them wrong if they tried to fudge the details. Immediately after this creed Paul wrote that the majority of the 500 people who saw the resurrected Jesus were still alive and could be questioned about it (cf. 1 Cor. 15:6). The importance of this creed cannot be overestimated as Habermas explains:

No longer can it be charged that there is no demonstrable early, eyewitness testimony of the resurrection or for the other most important tenets of Christianity, for this creed provides just such evidential data concerning the facts of the gospel, which are the very center of the Christian faith. It links the events themselves with those who actually participated in time and space. As such this creed yields a strong factual basis for Christianity through the early and eyewitness reports of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.28  

Early creeds such as this one are powerful historical evidence for the reliability of the NT. At a minimum “these creeds show that the church did not simply teach Jesus’ deity a generation later, as is so often repeated in contemporary theology, because this doctrine is definitely present in the earliest preaching.” These creeds are so authentic that “even the renowned atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann acknowledges that within one to two years after his death the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead was so widespread and central to Christian practice that it formed part of basic catechetical instruction. There is no late evolutionary development of Christian faith decades after the real facts were forgotten.”29

Evidence that the NT has not been Altered

To maintain that the NT account is historically reliable, not only do we need evidence that it came from eyewitnesses, and that they told the truth, but we need to verify that other people have not corrupted these accounts over the centuries. Unlike the United States Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, the originals of which are on display at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., the only NT manuscripts we have today are copies. Writing material from any age is notoriously difficult to keep from deterioration. Even the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which are just a few hundred years old, are kept intact only by the latest preservation technology. Archeologists have found documents dating back thousands of years but this is definitely the exception. Someday we may find parts of the original NT but for now, we do not have any of the original NT documents.    

While this may be alarming at first, keep in mind that this is the norm for ancient writings. There are two important criteria that help determine how faithful the copies are to the originals. The first is the length of time between when the originals were written and the dates of the earliest available copies. The shorter this time, the less likely it has been altered. The papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John called the John Ryland Papyri has already been discussed, dating back to AD 100-150. As for more complete documents, the “Chester Beatty Papyri and Bodmer Papyri contain most of the New Testament and are dated about 100-150 years after its completion.”30 This is a very small length of time considering these other popular works from the ancient world.

  1. “Aristotle taught and wrote in the fourth century BC…and our earliest copy is from AD 1100. That’s fourteen centuries after his original.”31
  2. “The Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century BC” and the earliest copy we have is “dated AD 900, 1,300 years later.”32
  3. “Caesar’s Gallic War, written about 50 BC…but our earliest copy is also from AD 900, almost 1,000 years after he wrote.”33
  4. Homer’s “Illiad comes from about 800 BC… but the earliest of these is from the second century AD, a millennium after the original.”34

These facts have led noted British manuscript scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon to write, “the interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.”35

The other criterion that helps us determine how true the copies we have are to the original is the number of different copies we have. The more copies we have to evaluate, the easier it is to compare and confirm exactly what the original said. There are differences between the NT copies we have, but considering the way copies were transcribed by hand it is natural that errors would creep in. It is important to remember that these differences are negligible when it comes to discerning the meaning of the text; the vast majority of the differences are misspellings, typos, or word arrangement.   

As Christianity spread through the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, the NT was copied many times. The result is that “the number of New Testament manuscripts is overwhelming compared with the typical book from antiquity…the New Testament has almost 5,700 Greek manuscripts in existence—this makes it the best textually supported book from antiquity.”36 In addition there are thousands of other ancient New Testament manuscripts translated to other languages. There are 8,000 to 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, plus a total of 8,000 in Ethiopic, Slavic, and Armenian. In all, there are about 24,000 manuscripts in existence. Below are the same four ancient works compared earlier to the NT and how many copies of them we have.

  1. Of Aristotle, “we have only five copies to study.”37
  2. As for the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus “only eight copies exist today.”38
  3. “We have ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic War.”39
  4. Homer’s Iliad comes closest to the NT but still has only just over “600 copies still existing.”40

The benefit of the NT being copied and recorded so many times and in places so far apart, is that historians can virtually trace back through the copying process and, by comparing all the copies from the different regions, can determine approximately when and where, for example, a certain spelling mistake began. From all these copies, the original NT can be recreated such that, as Metzger said, only one half of one percent of the NT we have today is in question, leaving 99.5 percent intact.41 And the small portion in question does not impact any major Christian beliefs.

To summarize how strong a case this makes for the authenticity of the NT copies we have today, consider the words of even Helmut Koester who, in a “two volume work dedicated to his former teacher Rudolf Bultmann”42 wrote:

Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript: if there are half a dozen or more, one can speak of a rather advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. But there are nearly five thousand manuscripts of the NT in Greek, numerous translations that derive from an early state of the textual development, and finally, beginning in II CE, an uncounted number of quotations in the writings of the church   fathers….the manuscript tradition of the NT begins as early as the end of II CE; it is therefore separated by only a century or so from the time at which the autographs were written. Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.43     

The last topic that must be considered is the possibility of mistranslation. While it is true that the NT has been translated many times, it is not the case that what we read today is a translation of a translation of a translation, etc., going back to the original Greek. If that was how our current English versions came down to us, we would be justly concerned that the original meaning had been lost. But that is not how it happened. No, each translation starts with the original Greek and then Greek scholars work from there to make the most accurate translation for a certain group of people who live during a certain period of time.

The key reason that the NT has been translated in English so many times is because the English language has changed over the centuries, not the original Greek NT. New English versions were necessary as our English language changed over time so, starting with the original Greek, translators put the Bible in terms that are more understandable to people today.       


There is solid historical evidence that that the NT contains true eyewitness testimony that has not been altered by others. While it is not possible to prove this absolutely it is important to realize that we cannot be positively sure of anything in such an absolute sense. To one degree or another there is an element of faith in everything we do.

Every time we get in a car, we take a step of faith that the manufacturer built a safe reliable vehicle and that it is working properly. There is no way to be absolutely sure the brakes will not stop working or the gas tank will not explode. How much evidence does it take before we are reasonably confident enough to drive the vehicle to work?

The question is not “can we absolutely prove it is true with complete certainty?” The right question is “how much evidence does it take before we are reasonably confident enough to trust it?” The amount of evidence needed is directly related to how much risk is involved and how extreme the claim is. Since the NT is asking us to bet our lives on its bold claims it is natural to have questions about its reliability. There is enough evidence for the reliability of the NT that many intelligent people have considered it reasonable to put their trust in its claims and place their faith in Jesus as their Savior. Even His miracles are well attested, making it reasonable to conclude His claim to be God was true. There is still a step of faith involved but in light of the evidence that the NT writers were eyewitnesses that told the truth, it is not a blind leap of faith in the dark but a reasonable step of faith into the light.


[1] Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by The Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice, reprint of the 1874 edition, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984).

[2] Norman Geisler, Introduction Bible, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 463.

[3] All scriptural references are taken from the NASB 1995 version unless otherwise noted.

[4] Donald Guthrie, New Testament: Introduction, 4th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1012.

[5] Ibid., 1012.

[6] Ibid., 1016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 1019.

[9] Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, ed. Conrad Gempf (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990).

[10] Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (1996; repr., Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 2008), 251.

[11] Ibid., 188.

[12] Ibid., 198.

[13] Ibid., 199.

[14] Ibid., 193.

[15] Ibid., 193-194.

[16] Ibid., 206.

[17] Ibid., 224.

[18] Ibid., 227.

[19] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 115.

[20] Ibid., 116.

[21] Guthrie, 297.

[22] Habermas, 35.

[23] Ibid., 143.

[24] Ibid., 148.

[25] Ibid., 146-152.

[26] Ibid., 153. Habermas notes over a dozen scholarly works to make his point.

[27] Ibid., 154. Habermas lists several more scholars and references their works, noting that one of them, O’Collins, says “as far as he is aware, no scholars date this creed later than the AD 40s.”

[28] Ibid., 153. 

[29] Blomberg, 147-148.

[30] Habermas, 55.  

[31] Rick Cornish, 5 Minute Apologist (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), 61.

[32] Ibid., 61.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Geisler, 462.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Cornish, 61.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Geisler, 463.

[42] Habermas, 55.

[43] Ibid., 55-56.

Convincing Proof