Is the New Testament reliable?
Short answer: Yes, in certain areas. But not reliable enough in other areas.
Based on my research, the New Testament might be a mostly credible source of information and some historical facts, but is less credible on other facts and theological interpretation. For the types of claims that the Bible makes, I personally think that it is lacking in credibility.
What claims am I talking about?:
- Jesus is the only way to God and eternal salvation
- Jesus was born of a virgin
- Jesus died and rose again
- Jesus performed a dazzling array of supernatural miracles (I actually believe this is mostly true)
- The Bible is the inerrant Word of God
- And more
Based on how the New Testament was written, canonized, and translated, there is reason to believe that it should be taken with a grain of salt.
Also, some of the NT (I’m looking at you, John’s gospel) are more theological in nature. Meaning, he was more focused on communicating the divinity of Jesus, so his writings are more an interpretation of Jesus’ life, rather than a purely factual log of what Jesus said and did (like Luke, for instance).
So some of the NT is injected with the authors’ own interpretation of Jesus’ life. With any interpretation of events, data, or information, there is much room for error. That’s because it’s always a human doing the interpreting, and humans are always prone to error.
Even if the New Testament was perfectly produced to be the inerrant and verbatim Word of God, how we interpret it now will always be prone to error. So we should always have humility when attempting to interpret the Bible.
No matter how you slice it, the Bible as a whole is made up of 66 books and almost 1 million words, written by dozens of authors. To say that Jesus’ life was interpreted perfectly, and then written, canonized, and translated to be the verbatim Word of God, is ridiculous.
Take one of today’s most trusted Bible teachers – Francis Chan, John Piper, Timothy Keller, etc. Most Christians would not take all of what they say as the absolute, inerrant, verbatim, unquestionable Word of God, right? Why? Because they are still human, and prone to error. Nobody is a perfect vessel, right?
Yet in the same breath, Christians would take it on faith that Jesus’ life was interpreted, then written, canonized, and translated into the verbatim Word of God over thousands of years by dozens of people. “Nobody is perfect” but dozens of ancient people were led by God perfectly to accomplish all of this without error? I think it’s fair to say that would be improbable, to put it kindly.
So no, I don’t think the Bible is completely reliable (meaning not inerrant or infallible).
“The Christian story did not drop from heaven fully written. It grew and developed year by year over a period of forty-two to seventy years. That is not what most Christians have been taught to think, but it is factual. Christianity has always been an evolving story. It was never, even in the New Testament, a finished story.”John Shelby Spong
“Word of God” or to treat the words of the Bible as if they were words spoken by the mouth of God is to me not just irresponsible, it is also to be illiterate.”John Shelby Spong
If the Bible were to be taken as the literal Word of God, women should still not pray with their head uncovered, cut off their hair, and men’s hair shouldn’t be long. Literal interpretations of scripture have been used to justify slavery, the Crusades, genocide, and more. Galileo was on trial for heresy for saying the earth wasn’t the center of the solar system, because the book of Joshua said that the sun revolved around the earth.
The list could go on. To take the New Testament literally, or assume there is only one true interpretation, is intellectually lazy.
Jesus reserved his most searing anger for religious scholars and teachers who valued theological accuracy and religious devotion, over an actual life-giving relationship with God that overflowed onto others. Many nowadays are in danger of the same Pharisaic attitude.
“Jesus died for our sins” has been understood. Among some Christians, it is seen as an essential doctrinal element in the Christian belief system. Seen this way, it becomes a doctrinal requirement: we are made right with God by believing that Jesus is the sacrifice. The system of requirements remains, and believing in Jesus is the new requirement. Seeing it as a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God leads to a very different understanding. “Jesus died for our sins” means the abolition of the system of requirements, not the establishment of a new system of requirements.”Marcus Borg
Biblical Inerrancy & Infallibility
Just a little side note that the Bible wasn’t thought to be inerrant until after the Reformation in the 1600’s, and the idea of inerrancy was “insistently affirmed by some Protestants only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (Marcus Borg, Ronald Hendel, et al). Inerrancy is something that modern Christians take for granted, but don’t realize that this is a relatively new idea.
Let’s Get To It
Let’s go over some of the specific arguments for the reliability of the New Testament, and the problems with each.
One argument not mentioned is the argument from textual criticism, or whether our current texts are true to the original manuscripts. I’m going to assume that this is a non-issue, and there are other root arguments that are more important.
“The Bible is a human product: it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not how God sees things.”Marcus Borg
Reliability from Historical Accuracy
Many people try to make the case for the New Testament’s authority based on historicity, such as from archaeological facts or whether events in the Bible actually happened.
While I can understand why someone would want to argue for the Bible’s credibility based on this, logically it doesn’t make sense. Just because the historical facts might be accurate, it doesn’t mean those facts were interpreted correctly. And it doesn’t automatically make the NT trustworthy about all historical facts.
For instance, people will say that since the NT is accurate about Pontius Pilate (that he existed and ruled when the NT says he did, etc), it lends credibility to other claims (like Jesus was resurrected after 3 days, or that He was born of a virgin). Or people will say that since one historical fact is true, the writer’s theological interpretation of that event must be true. Or that all supernatural events must be true.
Logically this doesn’t make sense. Sure, the fact that a certain set of historical claims are accurate lends some credibility to everything else the Bible says. But it doesn’t make the Bible automatically accurate about every other historical or theological claim. Every claim must be analyzed for its own credibility.
Reliability from Canon, Authorship, and Oral Tradition
I’m gonna combine 3 arguments into one big doozie of an argument.
People try to argue for the reliability of the NT by how it was canonized, but the canonization process depended on who wrote the NT (apostolic authorship) and whether what they wrote was accurate (which is usually argued by oral tradition).
Greg Gilbert in Why Trust the Bible argues that since the process of canonization was so rigorous, it lends credibility to how reliable the New Testament is.
That might be true. But it also might not be true.
The NT was canonized using the following criteria:
- Apostolicity: Was it written by one of the apostles?
- Antiquity: Was it written while the apostles were alive? In other words, could it be verified by the apostles?
- Orthodoxy: Does it match up to the teachings of the apostles?
- Universality: Was it accepted by a diverse portion of the early church?
These standards do sound rigorous on the outset. But there are two problems with this argument:
- The councils that canonized the NT didn’t happen until the 390’s AD (over 300 years after the gospels were supposedly written). A lot of errors can happen in 300+ years.
- Any institutional council is prone to error (via groupthink and just being human)
- The apostles themselves could’ve been prone to error (largely because the gospels and letters they wrote happened so long after Jesus’ death)
- The gospel accounts themselves were written anonymously (which is the general scholarly consensus), and were later attributed to the apostles (which means they could’ve been falsely attributed to the apostles to lend them credibility)
- The gospels might not have been written by the apostles (this is mainly deduced from how the gospels are written – 3rd person not 1st person, etc – this is argued by Bart Ehrman, and others)
- Even if the gospels were written by the authors we think, only half of them would’ve been eyewitnesses. Luke was an assistant to Paul, and Luke’s gospel was an eyewitness account (supposedly) collected from the apostles. Mark was a disciple of Peter, and also not an eyewitness, but his gospel is considered the first gospel written and the primary source for the synoptic gospels (Matthew & Luke). If the main source for most of the gospels wasn’t an eyewitness, and was written over 40 years after Jesus (as Mark was), doesn’t that call its credibility to question?
- Science and the legal system shows that memories fail, eyewitnesses are unreliable, and need multiple eyewitnesses to corroborate a testimony (and the gospels do not corroborate each other in many places, even if they were all eyewitness accounts)
To me, this is the crux of everything when it comes to how reliable the New Testament is. Let’s say all of my previous objections with the canonization process were a non-issue. That would leave oral tradition as the sole remaining argument for the reliability of the New Testament.
The argument goes that orthodox Jews (rabbis and their students) practiced oral tradition to help students remember the teachings of previous rabbis. Oral tradition was practiced so rigorously that long chunks of teaching could be recited verbatim by rabbis to their students. So, the argument goes that the apostles also practiced oral tradition, so they are highly likely to remember what Jesus said and did almost perfectly, which makes the gospels highly credible.
But the counterargument to oral tradition is a simple one: We have no idea (that I know of) suggesting that the apostles practiced oral tradition to this level of rigor. In fact, there is evidence to argue that they did not.
To me there is one main piece of evidence that pokes holes in the oral tradition argument:
The apostles were generally not well-educated, especially in Jewish orthodoxy. Most of them were fishermen, and not exposed to rigorous religious studies. Why would we assume they practiced oral tradition?
Then going back to Mark’s gospel, which was written as a journalistic collection of Peter’s eyewitness testimony. Peter was a fisherman. Do we really believe that Peter, an uneducated fisherman, practiced the same level of rigorous oral tradition as in Jewish orthodoxy? I think not.
Plus, if the gospels weren’t even written by the apostles (as argued by Ehrman, et al), we know even less whether the real authors practiced oral tradition.
Reliability from Prophecy
This is one argument I’m not incredibly knowledgeable in. But my thought has always been that since the gospels were written so much later after Jesus death (around 30-90 years), it’s way too easy for the authors to inject “facts” that confirm prophecy.
And, it is possible that Jesus was knowledgeable about prophecy enough that he would know what to do to fulfill prophecy (entering Jerusalem on a donkey, etc).
Plus, some prophecies that were fulfilled weren’t very explicit. For instance, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4 that Jesus was raised from the dead on the 3rd day “according to the scriptures”. But even the Gospel Coalition admits that there is no prophecy in the Old Testament that specifically says the Messiah would die and rise again on the 3rd day.
Many Christians use the verse which says “all scripture is God-breathed” to say the New Testament is perfectly reliable, inerrant, and the verbatim Word of God.
Except, there was no New Testament when this verse was written. The NT was not canonized, and the letters they wrote were not considered to be scriptural yet. This verse was not considered to be scripture for another 300+ years.
How I View the Bible and New Testament
I view the Bible as a progressive revelation of who God is over time. I think the Bible writers may have very well been operating from a deep relationship with God. But I do think that they still had filters, biases, and lenses that kept them from fully knowing the true voice of God.
This is how I think of why God was so wrathful in the OT, but so loving in the NT. God didn’t change. Our revelation of Him changed.
I don’t think it was God’s will for so much massacre and genocide to happen in the OT, for instance. That was from human beings who may have been close to God, but also craved war and control, and so used God to justify their cravings.
“God may or may not be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but the cultural context in which we speak about God does change.”Marcus Borg
I didn’t really want to write this article. I don’t like confrontation, and I didn’t really want to touch such a controversial subject. Most of my friends are Christians, and I don’t want to argue with them or lose friends because of my beliefs.
But at the same time, I do believe the truth (or what I think is the truth), must be told. God (or what we think is God) shows a pattern of disrupting what we think is true, and including more people in His grace than we’d expect. That was the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, getting angry with religious people and what they thought was true.
I do think we are at a new point where God is revealing something new. I believe that He wanted the Bible to point us to Him, not just be interpreted as His literal words, and certainly not His final words. He has more to say.
I’m also at the point where I believe that what we think is “God”, is actually just humanity accessing the infinite wisdom within us all. From what I’ve studied about other religions, neurotheology, the science of spirituality, and other forms of mysticism, I see now that the Divine is something we all can access. There is evidence which shows that “God” is actually just a state of mind, a state where we transcend our normal sense of self, space, and time, and access infinite awareness.
Maybe this is still God communicating with us. If that’s true, then we all have access to Him (and you don’t need to confess the name of Jesus to be saved).
If this infinite awareness is not God, then He is not as personal as we think. He may have designed us and our universe, but “God” could simply be a mental state that can be accessed without any special spiritual key. Christians call this infinite awareness God (because it feels infinite when we pray), but it could just be a purely psychological state.
Either way, I want this criticism of the New Testament’s reliability not just to be argumentative, negative, or controversial. I want it to be a stepping stone to something else – something better – as it was for me.
As I’ve studied this out, I have realized the weaknesses of Christianity. The foundation that Christians build their faith on is shaky (the Bible), but it doesn’t get questioned. Most Christians don’t know a thing about the New Testament. They don’t know that the gospels were written anonymously, or written 30-60 years after Jesus, or that half of them weren’t even eyewitness accounts. They skip the questions and evidence against the Bible’s reliability, and still have the confidence to tell others that Jesus is the only way to God and that they must confess Jesus as Lord, or they’re going to hell.
But as I have seen Christianity’s weaknesses, I’ve also seen its strengths. As I have reduced the complex components of the faith and removed what isn’t reliable or true, I still see the most important foundation of the Christian faith – direct relationship with the infinite wisdom within us (what we call “God”).
“A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about him.”J.I. Packer
Based on my research in interspirituality and the science of spirituality, I believe this mystical experience is something that all humans can access.
And I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Research has shown that prayer and meditation can actually make us significantly more intelligent, adaptable, emotionally intelligent, resilient, focused, compassionate, and more.
All religions and spiritual practices have this same mystical experience. And the world needs to experience that, now more than ever.