If Americans had begun writing down the history of this country within the last few years, thoughtful people would have serious doubts regarding its accuracy. After more than 200 years of oral tradition, much of the important information would no longer be reliable. A story changes when pass from one person to another, and normally keeps getting better! Heroes become more heroic and villains become more evil.
If the stories about Christ in the New Testament were not written down for hundreds of years, many people would expect it to contain multiple inaccuracies and legendary accounts. However, there are many reasons to believe that the New Testament was completely written before the beginning of the second century. In fact, most of it was probably complete before the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the future Roman Emperor, Titus. The following facts suggest that eyewitnesses were still around when the New Testament was first being circulated.
· While all of the synoptic gospels record Jesus’ prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple, none of them claim that it was fulfilled. Why? Probably because it was not yet fulfilled when they were written. (See Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13.) John was the last gospel, and had a different purpose. However, it also contains many eyewitness details.
· In Hebrews 5:1 and 7:27, present tense verbs are used to describe the sacrifices being offered by the priests in the temple. Again, it appears that this was written prior to the temple’s destruction in AD 70.
· The Gospel of Luke was completed before Acts, and Acts was probably written by AD 61. There are many events not recorded in Acts, such as the death of James (about AD 62), Paul (about AD 64), and Peter (about AD 66). Also, no mention is made of Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome (beginning in AD 64), or the destruction of the temple.
· Ignatius quoted Matthew (and several of Paul’s epistles) around AD 110. Within the next century, the four gospels were quoted by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and many others.
· The earliest certain New Testament manuscript is called the John Rylands fragment, which is a section of the Gospel of John written on papyri. This was discovered in Egypt, so apparently the text was already being circulated early in the second century. This manuscript is often dated around AD 125, though some scholars argue for an even earlier date.
The fact that the New Testament was written and circulated so early is a strong argument for its reliability. The Apostle Paul understood how important this was when he wrote about the resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15. He said that most of the eyewitnesses were still alive and could verify the truth of what he wrote. This claim is critical, because Paul was about to argue that if Christianity isn’t true, it shouldn’t be believed. The fact that these early Christian Scriptures were being read by people within a generation of the events they record demonstrates their unique reliability.