How Did We Get the New Testament?
A Study Guide
“We have no ancient sources about Jesus and Christianity from ‘neutral’ observers. Whether we are dealing with Roman writers like Tacitus or Jewish writers like Josephus or the New Testament writers themselves, none of these writers is attempting to give us an ‘objective’ assessment of the data, if by ‘objective’ one means value free or purely neutral. Thus, all the relevant ancient data must be critically sifted and evaluated . . . we must always ‘consider the source’ of the information as we evaluate its interpretation of the data.” New Testament History: A Narrative Account, Ben Witherington III
The New Testament records the virgin birth, miracles, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but many are skeptical of the New Testament’s claims concerning Christ. So how can we know if the claims of the New Testament are true? We must first explore the origin of the New Testament. Jesus’ disciples first proclaimed Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection right after his resurrection and accession back to Heaven. This oral message [eventually] took on a written form. Its essential message appears in the four gospels.
I. The Four Gospels
The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were penned before AD 70. Matthew, one of the 12 disciples, recorded his first-hand account.
Mark recorded the Apostle Peter's recollections. Luke, missionary companion of the Apostle Paul, consulted many eye-witnesses. John, also an eyewitness of Christ, penned his gospel toward the end of the 1st century.
II. The NT Epistles
Many New Testament Epistles were written before these gospel accounts. James, the Brother of Jesus, penned his book around AD 45, just over a decade after Christ’s death.
Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians around AD 47 to 48. These early epistles all clearly refer to Jesus as Lord, a reference to his deity.
So we see that the New Testament epistles were written by the apostles during a period in history where the eye-witnesses were still alive, therefore they were personally able to validate the writings of the New Testament and prevented any myth from developing in the accounts.
So what are the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament and how many do we have?
III. Earliest Manuscripts of the New Testament
Early papyrus copies rapidly circulated throughout the Roman Empire. Scholars have discovered about 120 of these early manuscripts.
Some even have large portions of the New Testament while others contain a single book or page. They date from about AD 100 to about AD 700.
For example, the Apostle John wrote the fourth gospel at the end of the 1st century. A small papyrus fragment with a small portion of the gospel of John copied onto it was found in Egypt dating to the early 2nd century.
This shows how quickly these gospels traveled. In 30 years, people had copied and transported this gospel far from its origin in Ephesus. Hundreds of copies were made.
It would have been impossible for anyone to collect and change them all. This is why we can be assured that we have what was originally written by the apostles themselves.
How reliable is the recorded information of the New Testament authors?
IV. Reliability of the New Testament Authors
Eye-Witnesses: Many of the men who wrote the New Testament actually witnessed the events they recorded. The Apostle Peter said, ‘We were eye-witnesses of his majesty.” The Apostle John says, “We have seen with our eyes, have looked upon, and our hands have handled," referring to Jesus. John also says, “And the Word Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.”
Some skeptics claim that none of the New Testament gospel writers met Jesus. The gospel of John bears all the marks of a true eye-witness account. It was clearly written by a Palestinian Jew, of the 1st century who was familiar with Jewish customs, religion, and geography.
One critic, Sir William Ramsey investigated Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts. Ramsey was surprised to find the books to be historically accurate with great precision and concluded that the works were completely authentic. As a result, he trusted Christ and become a great defender of the faith.
Our next question: “Why [were] the 27 books of the New Testament were accepted, while others were not?”
V. The New Testament Canon: A Brief History
Inclusion in the Canon: A book was included in the New Testament, if: An Apostle, or a close companion of an apostle, wrote it.
The books were written in the 1st century. The books would not contradict themselves or the Old Testament scriptures. They would be widely accepted by the early church.
Recognition of the Canon: The first person known to us to establish a complete list of New Testament books was Marcion around AD 140.
History remembers Marcion merely because he established a shortened cannon list, including the gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul.
By AD 180 the gospel canon was complete. The 2nd century Muratorian canon is a list of books regarded as authoritative in the early church at that time.
It lists the four gospels, Acts, all 13 of Paul’s letters, plus the letters of John, Jude, and Revelation. By the end of the 2nd, other books (such as 1 Peter and 1 John) have also gained wide-acceptance.
The Eastern church had also adopted Hebrews and the West accepted Revelation.
Some people claim that Constantine exerted a great influence on the books chosen for the New Testament and even their content.
Nowhere is there any indication that Constantine tried to influence the selection or contents of the books of scripture.
It would have been impossible for him to change the contents of individual books because they had circulated among the churches for over 200 years.
The first person to publish a list of New Testament books exactly as it is today was Athenasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his Easter letter in AD 367.
Since then, few have questioned the contents of the canon, at least until recent times.
VI. Transmission of the New Testament Over the Centuries
Some critics claim that all we have today in our manuscripts and translations are the accumulated errors of centuries of copying the text with little or nothing resembling the original manuscripts from the 1st century.
In the earliest period of copying, there were some still living (e.g. Papias and Polycarp) who personally knew the authors of the New Testament.
There also remained some who were eye-witnesses of those recorded events. Those witnesses would have quickly pointed out any errors introduced by later copyists.
What Happened to the Original Manuscripts? The NT writings were completed during the 1st century AD. However, their original fragile papyrus documents disappeared within years after they were written generally due to wear and tear.
Yet the test of those original documents remained in existence, preserving copies and maintained through many subsequent generations that spanned the centuries.
Are the Copied Manuscripts Reliable? The New Testament has been copied thousand of times, which naturally leads to copyists errors, arising in some of the manuscripts. Fortunately, if the great number of New Testament manuscripts increases the number of scribal errors.
It also increases proportionately the means of correcting the errors.
The vast number of manuscripts ensures the spotting of scribal errors and also the ability to confidently preserve the exact wording of the originals by comparing the numerous copies of manuscripts.
Stable Transmission of the New Testament: Copies were not made at a single location. They [were not] deliberately conformed to a single master copy imposed by church authority.
So the independence of the scribes at different locations created multiple lines of text transmission.
When these independent lines agree on their text, their testimony is of the highest value. Through this process the common text accurately preserves the original writings of the apostles.
Vast Number of New Testament Manuscripts: To all this should be added the vast number of manuscript copies available.
Between the 1st century and the 16th, there exist over 24 thousand manuscripts when you include Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and other ancient languages.
In the Greek language alone, there are over 5400 manuscripts. This evidence serves as overwhelming confirmation of the integrity of the New Testament texts being preserved.
There’s no other document in all of antiquity that even comes close to what we have in the Bible.
VII. Translation of the New Testament Texts
Can the Greek writings [of the New Testament] . . . be accurately translated into everyday languages of today? Absolutely!
Numerous other works of classical Greek and Latin antiquity are known to the modern reader only in translation and the general reliability of such translations are hardly questioned.
As long as the translator renders accurately and precisely what the Greek New Testament text itself states, here should be little question regarding the accuracy of meaning being conveyed from the original text to our modern translations.
2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1; John 1:14
Recommended Further Reading:
Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, by Walter A. Elwell
How We Got the Bible, by Neil R. Lightfoot
New Testament History: A Narrative Account, by Ben Witherington III
The New Testament Story, by Ben Witherington III