Editor’s note: The Rev. Charles E. Smith, pastor of Odessa Baptist Church, submitted the following article in response to reports on the work of the Jesus Seminar since the group’s inception.
It comes as a surprise to some people to learn that the New Testament has impressive documentation and convincing evidence for its authenticity. The truth is the New Testament is trustworthy in what it reports of what Jesus said, taught, and did; and it can be demonstrated - notwithstanding the palaver of the Jesus Seminar people who make the press so often.
There are three great criteria for determining the historicity of alleged events: adequate (and in this case) incontrovertible documentary evidence, adequate internal evidence, and likewise formidable external evidence. Where these have occurred, no alleged history has ever been shown to be false.
But the more easily and thoroughly to utilize these principles, consider this series of telling factors concerning the testimony of Christ’s resurrection.
First - the documentation. By this term we refer to superior documentation for the New Testament, as compared to secular literature. The documentation is based on biblical and extrabiblical evidence.
Take the manuscripts, for example. There are more than 5,000 manuscripts of the original Greek language with no extraordinary disparities between them. Then there are various early Christian-era translations to compare against; so that combining such data with the principles of textual criticism, the leading authorities such as Westcott and Hort tell us we are certain of the New Testament text within 1/1,000 part of the whole. And that 1/1,000 part has principally to do with trivia such as word placement, spelling, etc.
Not only so, but we have entire copies of the New Testament going back to within 300 years of the apostolic age, plus other evidence such as the John Rylands fragment of John’s gospel going back to the beginning of Century 2. A comparison of other such literature shows no such formidable manuscript evidence - i.e., Plato’s works: the earliest extant manuscripts are at least 1,300 years after his time. But no problem; they were copied meticulously in a chain of custody before each previous copy was lost or destroyed. So with the New Testament, only on a much stronger basis.
And we haven’t even mentioned the overwhelming extrabiblical evidence. For example, there are 36,000 citations and quotations of the New Testament in those first 300 years from which the New Testament can be totally reproduced, all except 11 verses.
And besides all of this, there are tons of papri from the first century that give us a “fix” on vocabulary, style, idiom, culture, etc., so we can have computerlike certitude of the first century dating of the New Testament books.
What bearing does this have on the resurrection of Jesus and trustworthiness of the New Testament? Plenty, because the witnesses were contemporaneous with the purported events. Therefore, since there was no viable contemporary challenge to the positive testimony of Christ’s resurrection, the presumptive evidence is in its favor.
We call this objective evidence as opposed to the subjective opinions like those of the Jesus Seminar group, who “pick and choose” what they believe to be authentic on highly personal grounds.
Secondly are the internal claims like John’s: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!”’ John 20:27,28 (NIV); or Peter’s: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” II Peter 1:16-18; or Paul’s: “He was seen (after resurrection) by Peter, the twelve, and above 500 at once.” I Cor. 15:5,6.
We know when I Corinthians was written and that most of those 500 mentioned were still living and available for contemporary crossexamination.
It is worth noting on this level the competency of the witnesses. Take Matthew, for example.
If ever a man had the motivation and qualifications to expose a “fraudulent Jesus” if there had been one, it was Matthew, a member of a class of men who were skilled at detecting every kind of charlatan and fraud. But, unlike the Jesus Seminar people, he made his investigations when the data was fresh, and he was converted to trust the savior forever!
Or, take Paul’s affirmation in I Corinthians 15, which makes very obvious the knowledge these witnesses had as to the distinction between “made-up stories” and the truth concerning Christ’s resurrection, when he said, “If Christ be not raised, we are false witnesses.”
But, don’t forget the external evidence.
As a matter of extrabiblical record, these men were persecuted and cross-examined (not by clever lawyers) but by crucifixion, stonings and various other punishments and death.
One can die for believing any highly subjective and opinionated belief and at least it would prove one’s sincerity, but to die for eyewitness testimony, such as seeing Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy’s assassin) on TV in 1963 would not only prove one’s sincerity but also the historicity of what was witnessed.
So, with the miracles and resurrection of Christ! Listen to Dr. Luke’s account on the first resurrection Sunday of what his investigations showed Jesus to say: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” Luke 24-39. It is no wonder then, that great legal authorities such as Simon Greenleaf (probably the greatest authority in the English-speaking world of jurisprudence) coming at the New Testament with disbelief and a purpose to disprove it, was instead convinced of the truth and trustworthiness and wrote instead a classic defense of the faith titled: “The Testimony of the Evangelists.”
And listen to this: He dedicated it to the legal profession who he affirmed of all men had the training and tools to ascertain the trustworthiness of the New Testament, and therefore most culpable if not checking it out.
Shame on the opinionated critics who seem to want to disbelieve so strongly. They fly in the face of the hard-core objective evidence that proves the authenticity of the New Testament and the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection!
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