Is the New Testament Reliable?

During my recent talk at the University of British Columbia on “Who Is Jesus?” I promised a short bibliography for those interested in questions raised about the reliability of the New Testament by the “Jesus Seminar,” The Da Vinci Code, Prof. Elaine Pagels, and others on the popular religious landscape. There is much confusion among even educated people today–sometimes especially among educated people today–about whether the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, render a trustworthy historical portrait of Jesus (quite apart from the question of whether or not we should regard the Bible as Holy Scripture, of course).

As a professional historian myself, who has studied not only the Bible but also the history of Biblical studies, I understand why people hold various views on these matters. Historical argument is never an open-and-shut case, but is always a matter of weighing evidence and argument for the most likely explanation. But after thirty years of academic historical study, I have come to this simple conclusion: There sure are a lot of good reasons to trust Matthew, Mark, Luke and John–and Paul–when they say that Jesus said this or did that. So I do.

I offer the following recommendations with assistance from Prof. Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh, Prof. Robert Yarbrough of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Prof. Robert Derrenbacker of Regent College. Please note that each of these books is written at a popularly-accessible level by accomplished scholars:

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity, 1987).

Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Nelson 2006).

Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006).

Charles Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Lee M. McDonald and James M. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).

Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done with Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History–Why We Can Trust the Bible (San Francisco: Harper, 2006).

N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

0 Responses to “Is the New Testament Reliable?”

  1. Rev. Chris Ayes

    In light of your comment in Read This First, Please, “There are other places to discuss such matters seriously, of course, but they tend to press one to a particular conclusion: notably such places as churches, synagogues, temples, and the like, or families of believers. Not everyone feels welcome to raise awkward or challenging questions therein.” it was discouraging to see a very one-sided list of conservative scholars who press for one particular conclusion. I grew up a conversative Christian but find I can’t ignore the Biblical scholars who are unwilling to adopt the official line. I do not find the arguments of Evans and Witherington convincing. (N.T. Wright, in my opinion, is more intellectually honest.)

  2. John Stackhouse

    Reverend Ayes, I don’t see the problem. I’m advocating a particular position (as bloggers do) and adducing evidence for it (as bloggers sometimes do). You certainly can “raise awkward or challenging questions” about my position or evidence. But I fail to see what is “discouraging” about this situation, unless it is just that you wish I agreed with you.

    I’ve read my share of New Testament studies from a range of views–as you might expect from someone who studied at both Wheaton and The University of Chicago. Moreover, one of my Ph.D. exams was in the history of Biblical criticism. So my advocacy of an intelligent, conservative opinion on these matters is, I daresay, an informed one.

    You’re perfectly welcome, then, to suggest an alternative proposal and argue for it. That’s the point of “Read This First, Please.”

  3. Donny Pauling

    Professor Stackhouse,

    An acquaintance of mine, Wil Cheung, pointed me to your blog. I am a former porn producer who surrendered my life to God in September of 2006, and am currently a seminary student through Hope International University’s Londen Institute. I travel extensively with, have spoken at churches and universities across the USA (including Yale University, Ohio State, and the University of Montana) and have even appeared in a debate that was aired by Nightline ABC.

    I’ve read much of Elaine Pagels’ work. She raises questions that need answers, in my opinion. Although my faith in God is secure, I do have questions. In fact, I spoke of some of these in a recent blog entry:

    I read all the time, but to be honest my shelf is full of books that have been sent. Although I read several books per week, I am not sure how long it will be before I can finish all that has been given to me. Rather than a list of books to read, I would be interested in a series of blog posts addressing the reasons you feel the New Testament is reliable, and the canonization of scripture is as it should be.

    Is this a possibility?


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