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MTA Home > Two Key Questions > History

Is Jesus a historical fact?
Can the Bible be trusted?

Our main source of information about Jesus is the New Testament in the Bible. Is the New Testament true? Is it an accurate historical record or a collection of religious myths? Do other historical records mention Jesus?

Let's start with the first question: Is what the New Testament says about Jesus a true, accurate historical record?

How do historians determine the accuracy of ancient documents and records?

Historians look at:

  • How close, in time and geographically, were the writers of the documents to the original events?

  • How many early copies do we have, how close are the copies to the originals (in time)?

  • Do the documents have contradictions or factual inaccuracies?

  • Are the descriptions of locations, roads, structures and geographical features confirmed by archeology?

We have copies of other ancient documents that are considered historically accurate. For example, Caesar wrote his history of the Gallic Wars between 50 and 60 BC. The earliest copies we have were made around the year 1000. We have ten copies from that time period. They are considered by historians to be accurate.

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote his Annals of Imperial Rome in about 115 AD. We have one copy of the first six books in this series. It was copied in about 850 AD. Books 11 through 16 are available in a copy made about 1050 AD. Books 7 through 10 are lost. The Annals of Imperial Rome is considered by historians to be accurate.

We have nine Greek manuscripts of first century historian Josephus' work titled, "The Jewish War." These copies were made in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. They are considered by historians to be accurate.

Aristotle lived around 350 BC. The earliest copy of his epic poems comes from A.D.1100 -- over 1,400 years after his death. We have five early copies of Aristotle's works.

We have eight copies, dated about 900 A.D., of the history of Thucydides. He lived in the mid-400's BC. Historians have long ago determined, based on these eight manuscripts created 1300 years after the original was written, that the history of Thucydides is accurate.

Homer's Iliad, the bible of the ancient Greeks, composed in 800 BC has an impressive 650 ancient Greek copies available -- the earliest is from the second and third centuries AD - 1000 years after the original was written.

So how does the New Testament compare with these universally accepted historical documents?

We have over 22,000 early copies of ancient New Testament manuscripts! Some papyri manuscripts date to the first century, within a few decades of when the original was written. There are over 5,600 ancient Greek manuscripts. Over 9,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts. And over 8,000 ancient manuscripts in Ethiopic, Slavic and Armenian. The earliest copies date so close to when the originals were written that the time difference is essentially non-existent.

We have papyri copies containing portions of the Gospels, the book of Acts, Paul's letters and the book of Hebrews made in the first, second and third centuries. The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri date to about the year 200. The M. Martin Bodmer Papyri also date to about the year 200. The Saint John's Library Papyri -- containing a portion of the book of John -- was made in Egypt and dates to between the years 98 and 130 AD (The book of John was written in approximately 90 AD).

Question One Summary

Numbers of copies: No other ancient historical documents come even close to being available in such large numbers (the Iliad is second with 650 copies) as is the New Testament.

Closeness to the originials in time: No other ancient historical documents are available in copies made so soon after the originals were written. (Most other documents are available only in copies made over 1000 years after the original.)

Contradictions: Other than a few minor differences in the Old Testament that are attributed to "typos" - none of which are related to fundamental doctrines or beliefs, there are no contradictions.

Archeology: Archeology has never contradicted anything in the Bible and has confirmed much of the Bible.

The conclusion: based on the number of copies, and their closeness in time to the originals, the New Testament has ample support for its accuracy.

Question two: Are we reading an accurate translation of the Bible today? Current translations of the New Testament are made using the ancient Greek manuscripts. They are very accurate. All other ancient records (such as the Greek and Roman histories) have a much less solid connection to the originals. If someone were to argue that the accuracy of the New Testament has been lost over time, then no other ancient historical document can be accepted as accurate.

If you do not feel the Bible has been accurately translated, you can purchase a copy of the New Testament in the original Greek, learn to read ancient Greek, and read it for yourself. There is nothing hidden or secret. The quality of the translation from Greek to Engllish is available for all to examine.

The conclusion: the translations of the New Testament we have today (NIV, NASB, NLT, NRSV, NKJ...) are accurate translations and can be trusted.

Question three: Do other historical records mention Jesus? Yes!

Keep in mind that if all the documents we have from the first two centuries AD were collected and put on a bookshelf, they might take two feet of shelf space.

One of the best known references to Jesus is in Josephus's history titled Antiquities. (Flavius Josephus was born in AD 37 and died in AD 97).

Other ancient writers who mention Christ are Cornelius Tacitus (AD 55-120), Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas (secretary to Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138), and Pliny the Younger who was a Roman author and administrator.

Writting in the year AD 221, Julius Africanus quotes from a history of the Eastern Mediterranean written in about AD 52 by Thallus. Julius Africanus writes concerning the time of Jesus' crucifixion::

"On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun."*

In addition, the writings of opponents of Christianty such as Jews and Gnostics, confirm that Jesus was a real person. If they could, the best alternative for Christianity's enemies would have been to say Jesus never lived. But the evidence was too real and fresh--there were people still alive who knew Jesus or the Apostles. Their only alternative was to accept Jesus, but change his message.

The conclusion: the non-Christian writtings confirm that Jesus was a real person.

And remember, in the Bible we are reading eye witness accounts, and carefully researched history, of what actually happened, written by people who were alkive when Jesus was alive.

Recommended reading: The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable by F.F. Bruce

*Recommended reading: The Historical Jesus by Gary R. Habermas




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