Historicity of the New Testament

By James M. Rochford

The gospels and epistles are a historically reliable record of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. There are three tests in which all historical documents are subjected in order to determine their reliability:

(1) The Bibliographical Test

(2) The Internal Test

(3) The External Test

Bibliographical Test: The bibliographical test (also called lower criticism or textual criticism) asks if the manuscripts from the first-century were accurately transmitted to us today. Were the original NT documents distorted over time?

Internal Test: There are three integral questions for this test of historicity: (1) Are the witnesses close to the events in question, (2) do the accounts contain internal contradictions, and (3) did the bias of the author distort their reporting of events?

Interlocking in the Gospels: “Interlocking” occurs when two independent sources resolve one another’s historical difficulties without meaning to—what some scholars have called “undesigned coincidences.” When two independent sources confirm one another (without intending to), this supports their veracity, showing that they were both reliably recounting concrete events from different angles.

External Test: If the internal test questioned the authors themselves, then the external test questions other observers from outside of the NT. That is, what do other sources say about the events that the Bible depicts? An eyewitness account loses credibility if it has inaccuracies in the details of the account. How does the NT stand up to scrutiny of this kind?

Further Reading on Historicity

Barnett, Paul. Is the New Testament Reliable?: a Look at the Historical Evidence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.

This is the best general introduction on historicity in our opinion.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: a Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Strobel’s book is still an excellent evangelistic book, where he interviews several scholars in the field of the historicity of Jesus.

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1999.

Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents. 6th ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

Bruce, F. F. Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament: (Second Print.). Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 1974.

In this book, Bruce looks at the extrabiblical sources that mention Jesus, and he gives a careful commentary on these sources.

Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Pub., 1996.

White, Adrian Nicholas Sherwin. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. The Sarum Lectures, 1960-61. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1963.

Sherwin-White was a Roman historian, who became a NT scholar.

Wilkins, Michael J., and James Porter Moreland. Jesus under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Further Reading in Textual Criticism

Ehrman, Bart D., Daniel B. Wallace, and Robert B. Stewart. The Reliability of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011.

Ehrman is a critical scholar, and Wallace is a Bible believer. This book contains an exchange between the two of them on the subject of textual criticism.

Bock, Darrell L., and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007.

Further Reading on Archaeology

Hemer, Colin J. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001.

Hoffmeier, James Karl. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008.

Hoffmeier’s book contains archaeological findings from both the OT and NT. It is an excellent book because of the color pictures of findings in this field.

Further Reading from critical scholars on historicity

Robinson, John A. T. Redating the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

Robinson was a critical scholar who came to date the entire NT before AD 70. His thesis is still worth reading.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Ehrman is an atheistic critic of the Bible, but he argues vehemently in favor of the existence of Jesus.