The timeline of the events leading up to the New Testament and during are vital to understanding the writings themselves.
There was a time period of 400 years where there were no prophets or anyone who is hearing the voice of God. Malachi was the last prophet but Israel did not listen; then, 400 years of silence from God. Suddenly around 25-29 AD a man that was not like the rest of his culture appears calling for everyone to repent and make way for the Lord. He proclaims that coming of someone great directly from God, and his coming is soon. Next thing he knows, that someone, is here; Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus not only claim to speak the words of God like all the prophets of the past, but he claimed to be directly related to God because he was God. A teaching that is still hard for some people to understand. For around 3 years, he taught and did miracles. He expanded on the old testament teachings and revealed what the Jewish authorities had wrong. The more people who listened to him the more the Jewish religious authorities grew less tolerant. Jesus started mentioning that he was going to be put to death in the last year of his ministry. Finally around 32AD the Jewish authorities appealed to Rome to put Jesus to death for violation of their sacred religious laws. He was crucified by Rome to appease the Jewish people and keep the peace.
The followers of Jesus were then targeted by Jewish authorities. His followers claimed to have seen him after he was killed and buried. The Jewish authorities hired people like Saul of Tyrus to investigate and arrest Jews who continued to proclaim Jesus as God. Around 36 AD, Saul was suddenly converted after claiming to see Jesus. A few years later, he began his ministry proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus along side the other followers of Jesus. But his mission was not just to convince Jews, Jesus was God, but he went also to the non-jews. In fighting in the Jewish culture between the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and now a new small sect who follow and believe in Jesus caused a lot of disturbances. There were riots and violence to the point where Rome decided in 70 AD to destroy the temple and Jerusalem.
The issue is not the existence of Jesus of the events surrounding him. Those are validated by people of his time who did not even believe in him or like him; yet they still wrote something about him in their writings. The issue is the reliability of knowing what Jesus taught and what the apostles were told.
A good analogy that helps illustrate this issue comes from the Stand to Reason site.
“Let me illustrate how such a test can be made. It will help you to
see how scholars can confidently reconstruct the text from existing
manuscript copies even though the copies themselves have differences and
are much older than the autograph (i.e., the original).
Pretend your Aunt Sally has a dream in which she learns the recipe
for an elixir that would continuously maintain her youth. When she wakes
up, she scribbles the directions on a scrap of paper, then runs into
the kitchen to make up her first glass. In a few days her appearance is
transformed. Sally is a picture of radiant youth because of her daily
dose of what comes to be known as “Aunt Sally’s Secret Sauce.”
Sally is so excited she sends hand-written instructions to her three
bridge partners (Aunt Sally is still in the technological dark ages–no
photocopier) giving detailed instructions on how to make the sauce.
They, in turn, make copies which each sends to ten of her own friends.
All is going well until one day Aunt Sally’s pet schnauzer eats the
original copy of the recipe. Sally is beside herself. In a panic she
contacts her three friends who have mysteriously suffered similar
mishaps. Their copies are gone, too, so the alarm goes out to their
friends in attempt to recover the original wording.
They finally round up all the surviving hand-written copies,
twenty-six in all. When they spread them out on the kitchen table, they
immediately notice some differences. Twenty-three of the copies are
exactly the same. One has a misspelled word, though, one has two phrases
inverted (“mix then chop” instead of “chop then mix”) and one includes
an ingredient that none of the others has on its list.
Here is the critical question: Do you think Aunt Sally can accurately
reconstruct her original recipe? Of course she could. The misspelled
words can easily be corrected, the single inverted phrase can be
repaired, and the extra ingredient can be ignored.”
The number of copies helps determine what the original contained. It allows for more comparisons and testing and what later copies changed compared to the older copies.
The age also helps determine what the original contained. Being closer to the recorded event and closer to the original provide for a higher probability of accuracy of that copy.
What also helps date and determine the original document are the quotations of it by other authors in their writings. The date of their writings help determine what was and was not in the copies before and after the quotation.
Other Ancient Documents:
Are you sure you know what Plato wrote? He supposedly wrote around 420 to 350 BC. The earliest manuscript of his is from 900 AD. and we only have 7 total variant copies. That is a gap of 1,250 years from Him and the earliest copy of his writings we currently have! Yet, this is deemed ‘reliable’ due to the agreeing portions of the copies. We can reliably construct what Plato wrote and taught by what others have quoted from him and comparing that to the few copies remaining.
The Illiad. We have over 600 manuscripts and the earliest is 400 BC. Sounds good right? The original was written around 900 BC. That means there is a gap from the original to the earliest known copy of 500 years! Yet, this is deemed reliable. We can construct what was in The Illiad by comparing all the quotations and copies and finding the agreeing elements.
The New Testament has over 5,800 fragments and manuscripts dating from 120 AD to 400 AD. From early church writings dating 90 AD to 400 AD we read over 8,000 quotations. The earliest was written less than 100 years after the event! not even talking about the original, the event! The synoptic gospels can be nearly reconstructed by the quotes alone. Comparing all the quotes and copies, 13,800 elements to compare and test we can determine the original documents far better than the Illiad and Plato’s writings combined.
The of the Gospel of John was written late 90 AD. The John Rynalds Fragment of The Gospel of John is dated around 110-130AD. That is only 20 to 30 years after John himself penned it and only 70 to 90 years after Jesus! Children and grand children of eye witnesses of Jesus could read it. Disciples of the Apostles would be reading it.
To dismiss the New Testament as unreliable is to dismiss Plato’s writings and The Illiad.
But the next question that is raised is: Has The New Testament Changed over time?
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