Outline of the Standard Evangelical Case for the Reliability of the New Testament

I'll probably return to this post a lot to fill in the details and provide explanation, but I just wanted to put something on my blog that provides a way to see the standard case at a glance.

The Reliability of the Orthodox “Portrait” of Jesus according to Evangelicals: The Basic Case[i]

1. From our Current Bibles to the Church Fathers: Textual Criticism
1.1 The Argument from Textual Criticism
1.2 The Argument from Patristic Quotation

“Okay, that gets us back to within a few centuries of the life of Jesus. But how do we know that our information about Jesus wasn’t corrupted prior to that?”

2. From the Church Fathers to the Gospels: The Argument from Patristic Testimony of Apostolic Authorship

“Okay, but the case for apostolic authorship is shaky and widely rejected. Are there other reasons to think that the gospels give us reliable eyewitness testimony about Jesus?”

3. From the Gospels to Their Immediate Sources:
3.1 The Argument from Markan Priority and the Dating of Luke-Acts
3.2 The Argument from Source Criticism: Mark, Q, M and L
3.3 The Sherwin-White Argument for a Stable Reliable Core of Information

“Okay, that gets us to information about Jesus that’s about two to three decades old, and many believe that the circumstances of the NT make Sherwin-White’s argument inapplicable in this case. Are there other reasons to think that such information is reliable?”

4. From the Gospel’s Immediate Sources to the Oral Tradition
4.1 The Argument from the Nature of Jewish Oral Tradition[ii]
4.2 The Argument from Studies of Oral Cultures
4.3 The Argument from Aramaisms
4.4 The Argument from Poetic Forms
4.5 The Argument from a Pre-Easter Tradition

“Okay, if these arguments work, then there is a general presumption of reliability in favor of the gospel materials, since they are based on reliably-preserved eyewitness information that goes back to the time of Jesus. But these arguments are widely disputed. Are there other reasons to believe that the sources behind the gospels are reliable if we’re not convinced by them?”

5. From the Oral Tradition to Jesus: The Argument from the Criteria of Authenticity[iii]

“Okay, but many people dispute that the criteria of authenticity establish the reliability of the quantity of passages that you claim. What if they’re right and many passages don’t give us reliable information about the words and deeds of Jesus?”

6. The Worst Case Scenario:
6.1 The Argument from the Minimal Core of Passages Accepted by the Radical NT Critics[iv]
6.2 The Argument from Coherence with Ancient Creeds and Hymns Preserved in the Epistles

[i] This case can be found in, for example, Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (and summarized in chapter form in several apologetics books), Marshall’s I Believe in the Historical Jesus, the relevant chapter in Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City, Blomberg’s chapter in Craig’s Reasonable Faith, and Boyd’s Cynic Sage or Son of God?.

[ii] After this point, it’s often argued that a presumption in favor of reliability is established, and so the burden of proof is on anyone who challenges the inaccuracy of a given passage. In the next section, an argument is given to show that even if one is not convinced that this is true, general reliability can be established via the criteria of authenticity while constantly having to shoulder the burden of proof. Thus, there is a dilemma: either the burden of proof is established here or it isn’t. If it is, then in each case reliability can be upheld by argumentation when challenged. If it isn’t, then in each case reliability can be established by proper application of the criteria of authenticity. Either way, then, the gospels can be shown to be reliable. Blomberg often uses this argument, but I think it goes back to at least Marshall.

[iii] At this point, many apologists (e.g., Moreland) argue that even if one is still unconvinced of general reliability, the minimal set of authentic sayings widely accepted by most NT critics still prevents total skepticism about knowledge of Jesus. For even if you only accept sayings that pass the criterion of dissimilarity -- which even the most radical NT critics accept as a reliable tool for gleaning historical information -- you are still left with most of the parables some other sayings. These are about the kingdom of God and Jesus’ relation to it. And this picture of Jesus is in keeping with the orthodox one. Thus, no matter which way you slice it, the NT gives us a reliable picture of Jesus.

[iv] Which is usually based upon just the use of the criterion of dissimilarity.


Tim said...

I think you've given a pretty good sketch of what most apologists writing today have taken the case to be. But there's a heck of a lot more detailed evidence than this -- from the undesigned coincidences and reconcileable differences in the gospels, from the use of inclusio to identify eyewitnesses, from the absence of the marks of second-century controversies in the canonical books of the NT, etc.

Are you leaving these other sorts of evidence out because you are working on the "it's widely rejected" criterion, or for some other reason?

exapologist said...

Hi Tim,

You're certainly right that there's more evidence to consider, but as I tried to indicate in my first footnote, my goal here is to give a representative outline of the case offered in popular apologetic books (e.g., Moreland's Scaling the Secular City, the chapter by Blomberg in Craig's Reasonable Faith, Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Marshall's I Believe in the Historical Jesus, Bruce's The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, Boyd's Cynic Sage or Son of God?, the Moreland and Wilkins edited collection, Jesus Under Fire, etc.). When I get time down the road (hopefully!), I'll consider the arguments of other authors.

I wish I had the time now to give an assessment of the case above, but I'm forced to postpone that until I finish my dissertation. For now I'll just say that my views are fairly moderate and middle-of-the-road about the quality of evidence about Jesus to be found in the gospels and other NT docs.



Tim said...

Ego te absolvo, filius meus. Write your dissertation!

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