This is a question recently submitted for Grace Talk:
How can Mark or any of the gospel writers so accurately record what Jesus said? Was someone writing it down as Jesus said it?
Of course, they wrote in the Queen’s English (or should I say King’s?) Just joking…that blog will be for another day. To answer this question, we must look at the evidence.
Today, there are almost five thousand ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament! Consider this, fifteen hundred years after Herodotus wrote his history there was only one copy in the entire world. Twelve hundred years after Plato wrote his classic, there was only one manuscript of it left. Today, there exists but a few manuscripts of Sophocles, Euripedes, Virgil, and Cicero. We have not one but five thousand ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. These manuscripts were meticulously copied and preserved.
What about the Old Testament? According to Josh McDowell, the following rules for scribes are written in the Talmud for copying the Hebrew text:
1. The parchment must be made of the skin of a clean animal, by a Jew only.
2. Each column must have no less than forty-eight nor more than sixty lines.
3. The ink must be black, made by a special recipe.
4. No word nor letter could be written from memory, the scribe must have an authentic copy before him. He had to read and pronounce aloud each word before writing it.
5. Each time he reverently wiped his pen (before writing) and washed his whole body EVERY TIME he wrote the sacred name Jehovah.
6. One mistake on a sheet condemned it. If three mistakes were found, the whole manuscript was condemned.
7. Every word and letter was counted. If a letter was omitted or added or if two letters touched each other, the whole manuscript was condemned.
The scribe was told that even if a king walked in, he was to ignore him till he finished the page, lest he make a mistake. It is clear that much care was given knowing the gravity of the task.
But are the words of the New Testament reliable? Greg Koukl, from Stand to Reason, observes that we must look at whether or not the evidence and the writings are reliable. Koukl points out that the disciples had little motivation to lie. Not only was it contrary to their strict morality, it would gain them nothing. In fact, to be a Christian in the early days of the church was to realize that in great probability you would be persecuted, ridiculed, perhaps even martyred. They were promised the same fate as the Lord (Matt. 10:22-25) In fact, every apostle except one (John) was killed because of his faith in Christ. Therefore, they went to their grave over what they said and believed. Secondly, when you try to prove evidence, you try to get first-hand witnesses. As Koukl stated, “In a court of law, these writers would qualify as the very best of witnesses.”
Koukl goes on to say that in a court of law, the testimony of a witness can be impeached by one of five lines of attack: 1. By proving that the witness, on a previous occasion, has made statements inconsistent with his present testimony. 2. By demonstrating bias in the witness. 3. By attacking the character of the witness. 4. By questioning the capacity in the witness to observe, remember, or recount the matters testified about. 5. By proving through other witnesses that material facts are otherwise than as testified.
According to Koukl, the testimony of the gospel writers is not vulnerable to any of these charges. There is no conflicting or inconsistent testimony. There is no evidence that the Gospel writers claimed at a previous time that the events in question never happened. Instead, they began proclaiming the salient facts from the outset and those facts didn’t change. The issue of bias and self-interest strengthens the credibility of the witnesses’ testimony rather than weakens it. The lives of the witnesses to Jesus Christ were continually in peril. In many cases the early Christians were driven underground into hiding, yet they clung fervently to their testimony, affirming the teachings of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. For this testimony they were often crucified together, fed to the lions, sacrificed by Roman gladiators, beheaded or made into human torches. One simple thing would have saved them this torment: recanting their testimony. These witnesses did exactly the opposite of what self-interest would dictate.
There is also no evidence to impugn the witnesses’ character, indicating that they might be lying. Not only was it totally inconsistent with the moral standard they professed and lived by, but also there was no motivation to fabricate. The unique nature of the events and the nature of the testimony lend themselves to accurate observation and recall. In reqarding all of the gospels, there is no direct evidence that the witnesses’ capacity to observe was distorted. The accounts are clear and lucid, giving an abundance of detail.
The accounts read like the testimony of one intimately acquainted with the facts of the issue, someone who was personally involved with the process, who was proximal to the events in question, and who had repeated opportunity to observe those events. For example, Matthew and John personally made visual identification of the risen Christ, an individual they had spent more than three years with in intimate, personal contact.
John and Matthew corroborate each other and are supported by other extraneous evidence. Disproving the facts of the first witness is generally accomplished using the testimony of a second witness. When we compare the testimony of the eyewitnesses John and Matthew, however, we find that their accounts mesh. Their accounts also coincide with the historical summaries given by Luke, the companion of Paul,
and Mark, the Apostle Peter’s companion. Since each one’s experience with Jesus was not the same, there are some differences, as you’d expect. There is sufficient unanimity between the witnesses to demonstrate corroboration. But there is sufficient variation in details and viewpoints in the accounts to eliminate the charge of collaboration.
From cover to cover, these writers claimed that God gave them every word. Psalms 68:11 says, “God gave the word, great was the company of those who published it.” The Apostle Paul said, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God (God-breathed) …” (II Timothy 3:16). Peter claimed, “We have not followed cunningly devised fables … We have a more sure word of prophecy … For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (II Peter 1:16-21).
The Bible is the most research and authenticated book ever written. The fact is, the Bible was written by forty different writers over a period of fifteen hundred years, most of whom never met or talked to each other. These figures, and the quality of the manuscripts, have led experts in textual criticism to conclude that the text of the bible is beyond question:
“In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings”
– F.J.A. Hort
“The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
— Sir Frederic Kenyon
The Bible’s reliability and its’ accuracy can be defended, and we should welcome critics who want to look into the claims of the Bible being “God’s Word”. The evidence is thorough, well-documented, and compelling. Yet at the end of the day, we are not simply looking for a “compelling” argument.
Rather, we want to see lives transformed by the gospel; to see people, who by God’s grace have placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. With confidence, we stand on the claims of the Bible. Yet, without faith, it is impossible to please God.
So we must pray and ask God to change people’s hearts and to grant them His grace and faith that they might understand and embrace the truth that Jesus saves sinners-like you and me.