Net Bible Institute © 1999

Why Should The Historical Background Of The Bible Be Studied?

In what ways does the study of history help with understanding the Bible? Can it be a help for us?

Helpful In Many Ways

There are at least five ways in which the study of the background of the Bible can help.

1. Many Specific Historical References

First, the entire biblical revelation centers on what God has done in history. For example, one chapter in Scripture, Genesis 10, has five times more specific geographical references of importance than the entire Koran, the holy book of Islam! In addition, there are over 300 references in the Book of Acts alone to names, places, and events. With so much attention to detail, the historical reliability of the Scriptures is of vital importance. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must be able to withstand the most thorough historical investigation.

2.See If The Bible Is Factual

The study of history, and its related fields, give us a means to check up and see if the Bible is factual. The Biblical faith is not a blind faith—it claims to record the works of God in history. Since the Bible itself makes the claim to record events that have happened in history, we should see how it matches up with the secular evidence. This can be done by comparing what the Scripture says to the known facts of history.

3.Place The Events In Sharper Focus

Looking at the subject of Biblical history can place the events in the Bible in sharper focus. By understanding the background we can better assess the Biblical story and its meaning.

4.Solves Problems

Studying the biblical background can help solve problems that occur in Scripture. An understanding of the customs, language, geography, and politics of the day can help understand certain difficult sayings and events.

5.Fill In The Gaps

Gaps in the biblical records can be filled in by a study of the background history. Since the Scriptures are selective in what they record, a study of the background can help fill in the gaps.


The study of the historical background of the Scripture is essential in confirming the truth of the Biblical record, along with clearing up certain difficulties that arise in the text. Background studies also help with our interpretation of Scripture—giving us a better understanding of times and customs when these events transpired. For these reasons, the study of the background of Scripture is essential for our learning more about the Bible.

Is It Important That The Bible Is Historically Accurate?

As we begin to explore the subject of the historical accuracy of Scripture we will discover it is of vital importance. The Christian faith is an historical faith—it records what God has done in history. This being the case, the historical accuracy of recorded events is of utmost importance. This is true for both the Old and New Testament.

Old Testament

The Old Testament is a testimony of the mighty works of God. The Lord reminded Israel of His mighty power. The historical accuracy of the Bible is of the utmost importance because the revelation of God to mankind was accomplished through His mighty words and deeds in history.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).

Urged To Remember

The nation was continually urged to remember these mighty deeds of God:

But the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt with great power and an outstretched arm . . . Him you shall worship (2 Kings 17:36).

O My people, remember now . . . that you may know the righteousness of the Lord (Micah 6:5).

God Came To Our World

Jesus Christ, God the Son, came into our world.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

We find the writers of Scripture appealing time and time again to actual historical events to testify to both the existence and power of God. The entire biblical revelation centers on what God has done in history.

Important Issue

Some people say that the message of Scripture is what is important, not whether the Bible is historically accurate. Such is not the case, however, as attorney/theologian John Warwick Montgomery writes:

Christianity's truth claim consists merely of a finger pointing back through time to an historical figure who divided world history into two parts—to Jesus of Nazareth—to His statements concerning Himself and true religion, and to the life He led attesting to the statements He made. An honest, historically accurate, scientific investigation of these data (involving chiefly a study of the documents collected in the New Testament) will show that Jesus claimed to be God Incarnate, that He described the only true (but not the only possible) religion consisting of fellowship with Himself, and that He attested His claims by a sinless life which profoundly affected everyone who crossed His path, and by a resurrection which left no doubt in the minds of eyewitnesses that He was in fact the true God (John Warwick Montgomery, The Shape of The Past: An Introduction to Philosophical Historiography, vol. 1, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1962, p. 328).

Therefore the historical importance and accuracy of the Bible is an essential matter with respect to the Christian faith.

Unique To Judaism And Christianity

It also must be stressed that historical reliability is unique to Judaism and Christianity. No other religion has any sort of historical base on which their belief system rests. Historian Paul Maier writes:

Because Judaism-Christianity has so thoroughly influenced Western culture, we are prone to imagine that all other world religions have a similarly solid historical base. This is by no means the case. It can, in fact, be argued that every religious system before or since Judaism and Christianity has avoided any serious interaction with history, and instead has asked it followers to believe by sheer faith alone, the claimed revelation of its founder(s). This is true of the mythologies of yesterday and the cults of today, the religions of the East or the New Age of the West.
Or, whatever links with genuine history are claimed—as in several modern beliefs systems today—these are never verified by secular history or findings by archaeology. Typically, a single founder claims divine revelation, which is subsequently written down as a holy book for his or her following. The founder may well be historical, of course, but one looks in vain for true correlations with secular history in the founder's holy book. Rather than any private, once-for-all-revelation, Judeo-Christianity's Scriptures encompass a two thousand year plus period—two millenia in which its holy books
constantly interlaced themselves with history (Paul Maier, In the Fulness of Time, p. xv.)

Must Demonstrate To Be Factual

If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must be able to withstand the most thorough historical investigation. Millar Burrows, who was America's foremost expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls wrote:

There is a type of Christian faith, . . . rather strongly represented today, [that] regards the affirmation of Christian faith as confessional statements which the individual accepts as a member of the believing community, and which are not dependent on reason or evidence. Those who hold this position will not admit that historical investigation can have anything to say about the uniqueness of Christ. They are often skeptical as to the possibility of knowing anything about the historical Jesus . . . I cannot share this point of view. I am profoundly convinced that the historic revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth must be the cornerstone of any faith that is really Christian. Any historical question about the real Jesus who lived in Palestine nineteen centuries ago is therefore fundamentally important (Millar Burrows, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, New York: Viking Press, 1958, p. 55).

The historical accuracy of Scripture is of vital importance, for it is the appeal made by the Bible itself to argue for its truthfulness.


The idea of the Bible being historically accurate is important for the following reasons:

1. The Scripture itself makes the claim that God has intervened in history. Many of these events have been recorded for us in Scripture.

2. The people were urged to remember what God had done for them in the past. They were to call to mind actual historical events that took place.

3. The central truth of the Christian faith—that God became a man—happened in history.

4. The historical accuracy of these claims demonstrates the truth of the Christian faith and its superiority over other religions that have no such verifiable evidence.

Is The Old Testament Historically Accurate?

The Old Testament records events that span thousands of years. Biblical scholar John Bright correctly points out the Bible's own high view of history:

The genius of the Old Testament faith does not lie in its idea of God or in the elevation of its ethical teachings. Rather it lies in its understanding of history, specifically of Israel's history, as the theatre of God's purposive activity. A concern with the meaning of history, and of specific events within history, is one of its most characteristic features. It records a real history, and it interprets every detail of that history in the light of Yahweh's sovereign purpose and righteous will. It relates past events—the stories of the Patriarches, the Exodus, the giving of the Promised Land—in terms of his gracious dealings with his people, his promise to them and fulfillment. It continually sets forth the response that Yahweh requires of his people, and interprets their fortunes in the midst of events, in terms of their obedience or disobedience to his demands. And it announces that Yahweh will yet do, in the judgment of Exile and beyond, for the accomplishment of his purpose. The Old Testament consistently views Israel's history as one that is guided as a destination by the word and will of her God (John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament. London: SCM Press, 1967, p. 130).

Role Of Archaeology

R. K. Harrison, Old Testament scholar and historian, emphasized the important role of archaeology in confirming the historical accuracy of the Old Testament:

Archeology must not be regarded as the sole determining consideration in matters of historical criticism, since it, too, is beset with its own kind of problems. These include poor excavating techniques in earlier days, the varied interpretation of specific artifacts, and the difficulty of establishing an assured chronological framework into which events can be placed with confidence. Archaeology is in no sense an adequate 'control' mechanism by which OT sequences stand or fall.
Nevertheless, archaeological discoveries have assisted enormously in demonstrating the historicity of certain OT events and personages, and in other areas have furnished an authentic social and cultural background against which many OT narratives can be set with assurance. Numerous cuneiform texts that have been unearthed show how the Mesopotamian writers of early historiographic material expressed themselves in terms of a world view, as is the case of the first few chapters of Genesis, thereby indicating that the latter should not be taken as myth, but as Mesopotamian historiography (R. K. Harrison, Bruce Waltke, Donald Guthrie, and Gordon Fee,
Biblical Criticism: Historical, Literary and Textual. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, pp. 6, 7).

Some Reversals In Old Testament Criticism

Not only has the basic history of the Old Testament period been confirmed by archaeological testimony, there also have been some startling reversals of Old Testament criticism.

Could Moses Write?

Until the twentieth century, it was believed that Moses could not have written the first five books of the Old Testament because writing was said to be virtually unknown or, at least, not commonly used at his time. Representative of this thought was liberal scholar Herman Schultz, who wrote in 1898,

Of the legendary character of the pre-Mosaic narrators, the time of which they treat is a sufficient proof. It was a time prior to all knowledge of writing, a time separated by an interval of more than four hundred years, of which there is absolutely no history, from the nearest period of which Israel has some dim historical recollection, a time when in civilized countries writing was only beginning to be used for the most important matters of State. Now wandering herdsmen have invariably an instinctive dislike to writing. In fact, at the present day, it is considered a disgrace among Bedouin tribes in the peninsula of Sinai to be able to write. It is therefore impossible that such men could hand down their family histories, in themselves quite unimportant, in any other way than orally, to wit, in legends. And even when writing had come into use, in the time that is, between Moses and David, it would still be sparingly used, and much that happened to the people must still have been handed down simply as legend (Herman Schultz, Old Testament Theology. H.A. Patterson, trans. Edinburgh: T cf. stone inscriptions of Ahiram). Thus, by the time of the entry of the Hebrews into Canaan in the Late Bronze Age they would be confronted, if not already familiar with at least five different forms of writing systems used for eight or more languages (D.J. Wiseman and Edwin Yamauchi, Archaeology and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, p. 25).

This is echoed by noted scholar Cyrus Gordon:

The excavations at Ugarit have revealed a high material culture in Canaan prior to the emergence of the Hebrews. Prose and poetry were already fully developed. The educational system was so advanced that dictionaries in four languages were compiled for the use of scribes, and the individual words were listed in their Ugaritic, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Hurrian equivalents. The beginnings of Israel are rooted in a highly cultural Canaan where the contributions of several talented peoples . . . have converged and blended. The notion that early Israelite religion and society were primitive is completely false. Canaan in the days of the Patriarchs was a hub of great international culture (Cyrus Gordon, Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit, Christianity Today, November 23, 1959).

The Hittites

An ancient people, known as the Hittites, are mentioned some fifty times in the Old Testament. For a long time they were considered to be fabricated by the Bible because the only evidence of their existence came from the Old Testament. Liberal scholars assumed the biblical references to the Hittites were historically worthless. John Elder comments on modern confirmation of the Hittites:

One of the striking confirmations of Bible history to come from the science of archaeology is the 'recovery' of the Hittite peoples and their empires. Here is a people whose name appears again and again in the Old Testament, but who in secular history had been completely forgotten and whose very existence was considered to be extremely doubtful . . . But until the investigation of modern archaeologists, the Hittites remained a shadowy and undefined people (John Elder, Prophets, Idols, and Diggers, New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1960, p. 75).

Archaeologist A. H. Sayce was the first scholar to identify the Hittite people from a non-biblical source. In 1876 he released his information from the monuments and revolutionized critical theories concerning the Hittites.

More Information

In the twentieth century, much more information about the Hittites has come to light confirming the historical accuracy of the Old Testament. Fred H. Wight concludes,

Now the Bible picture of this people fits in perfectly with what we know of the Hittite nation from the monuments. As an empire they never conquered the land of Canaan itself, although Hittite local tribes did settle there at an early date. Nothing discovered by the excavators has in any way discredited the Biblical account. Scripture accuracy has once more been proved by the archaeologists (Fred H. Wight, Highlights of Archaeology in Bible Lands. Chicago: Moody Press, 1955, pp. 94, 95).

Jesus' View

Another testimony of the trustworthiness of the Old Testament comes from Jesus Christ. When we examine the way Jesus viewed Scripture we can see that He trusted it totally. He said the Word of God was true:

Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth (John 17:17).

Jesus also said the Scripture could not be broken (John 10:35).

It is clear from Jesus' statements that He believed the Bible to be historically accurate and without error.

Summary Of Jesus' Attitude

Old Testament authority John Bright summarizes Jesus' attitude toward Scripture:

I am quite unable to get around the fact . . . that the Old Testament was authoritative Scripture for Jesus himself. Jesus knew no Scripture save the Old Testament, no God save its God; it was this God whom He addressed as Father . . . never once did He suggest that in the light of His work they might safely be discarded. On the contrary, He regarded the Scriptures as the key to the understanding of His person; again and again He is represented as saying that it is the Scriptures that witness to Him and are fulfilled in Him. At no place did He express Himself as shocked by the Old Testament . . . Although the Old Testament on occasion offends our Christians feelings, it did not apparently offend Christ's Christian feelings! Could it really be that we are ethically and religiously more sensitive than He? Or is it perhaps that we do not view the Old Testament—and its God—as He did? The very fact that the Old Testament was normative Scripture to Jesus, from which He understood both His God and . . . Himself, means that it must in some ways be normative Scripture for us too—unless we wish to understand Jesus in some other way than He Himself did and the New Testament did (John Bright, ibid. p. 77).


After briefly examining some of the historical and archaeological evidence in favor of the historical reliability of the Old Testament, we summarize with several observations:

1. The persons, places and events listed during the different periods of Old Testament history match up well with the facts and evidence from history and archaeology.

2. New evidence from recent discoveries has shown that certain Old Testament passages, once considered historically unreliable, are now found to be historically precise.

3. Above all, the Christian Church believes the Old Testament is historically reliable because of the testimony of Jesus Christ. Jesus claimed to be God in human flesh. These claims were later validated by His resurrection from the dead. Jesus taught that the Old Testament was the Word of God, totally accurate in all that it said. There can be no stronger confirmation than the testimony of Jesus.

Conclusion On The Old Testament

The archaeologist, John Elder, offers a fitting conclusion to the issue of the Old Testament's historical reliability:

It is not too much to say that it was the rise of the science of archeology that broke the deadlock between historians and the orthodox Christian. Little by little, one city after another, one civilization after another, one culture after another, whose memories were enshrined only in the Bible, were restored to their proper places in ancient history by the studies of archeologists . . . The over-all result is indisputable. Forgotten cities have been found, the handiwork of vanished peoples has reappeared, contemporary records of Biblical events have been unearthed and the uniqueness of biblical revelation has been emphasized by contrast and comparison to the newly understood religions of ancient peoples. Nowhere has archeological discovery refuted the Bible as history (John Elder, Prophets, Idols, and Diggers, Bobbs-Merrill, Co. p. 18).

We conclude, there is every reason to believe the Old Testament is historically accurate.

Does The New Testament Match Up With Secular History?

The New Testament is primarily a record of the salvation work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Yet when the New Testament addresses historical issues, it too is accurate and reliable.

Investigate The Same Way As Other Documents

The New Testament was written in the same way as other documents in the ancient world. Consequently, it should be examined the same way as these other documents. Contrary to the claims of other religions and cults, there is no record of documents written on golden plates or discovered in some cave. Neither are the writings of the New Testament brought down from heaven by angels. They are the straightforward accounts of the people who walked and talked with Jesus and were observers of the things that He both said and did. The men who wrote these books made them public at the time they were written. There is no idea of hiding them so as to be discovered by some later generation. Every aspect of the composition of the New Testament is the same as other historical writings of that period. Therefore we need to investigate their claims as we would any other historical record.

Recent Changes

Some scholars, who were formerly skeptical of the New Testament record, are now more apt to take it seriously. Bible scholar Carsten Peter Thiede writes or these changes:

Stone after stone has been added to the mosaic which we are beginning to recognize as the world of Jesus and the first Christians. Classical scholars, historians, archaeologists, have ventured into the domain of theology and New Testament studies, and they have come up with new assessments of the data. Judged from their vantage point, those who argue for early dates of authentic Gospels as sources of information about an historical Jesus . . . are no longer the conservative or fundamentalist outsiders. We are witnessing a 'paradigm shift'. It may still be true that those who rubbish the New Testament in best selling books make the headlines, but behind the scenes, the stage is being reset. Sir Henry Chadwick, the Oxbridge church historian, symbolized this wen he wrote, in a review of the book The Jesus Papyrus which I wrote with Matthew d'Ancona in 1996, 'Thiede and d'Ancona are likely to be near the truth in wanting to re-date the first three Gospels about the middle decades of the first century' (Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus: Life or Legend, Second Edition, Oxford, England, Lion Publishing, 1997, p. 9).

New Testament Books: Primary Source Testimony

As we investigate the New Testament, we observe that the writers of the New Testament books claimed to be either eyewitnesses to the events recorded or those who gathered eyewitness testimony. The Apostle John wrote,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us (1 John 1:1,2).

The fact that the New Testament writers claimed such objective, complete, and firsthand evidence concerning Jesus Christ is of the utmost importance. Their evidence is not hearsay or imaginary: it is direct and reliable as Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce observes,

The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of . . . first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and time again. 'We are witnesses of these things,' was their constant and confident assertion. And it can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of His disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.
And it was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early preachers had to reckon with; there were others . . . who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, 'We are witnesses of these things,' but also, 'As you yourselves know' (Acts 2:22). Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective (F. F. Bruce,
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964, pp. 33, 44-46).

The Books Were Read Aloud In The Churches And Circulated

We know that many of the New Testament books were read aloud in the churches. We have examples from the gospels, Paul's letters, and the Book of Revelation. In Paul's earliest letter he wrote:

I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers (1 Thessalonians 5:27).

The Gospel of Matthew also assumes someone will be reading it aloud.

Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand) (Matthew 24:15).

When Paul wrote to the Colossians, he ordered his letter to be read publicly.

And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16).

Public Reading Commanded

A very important passage is found in First Timothy. Here Paul commanded the public reading of the Scriptures.

Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13).

The Scripture would include all of the New Testament that had been written until that time.

Special Blessing

Finally, John promised a special blessing to the person who read the book out loud as well as those who heard it read. They would receive a blessing if they obeyed the things written in the book.

Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near (Revelation 1:3).

Therefore the message of Jesus went out publicly, before both believers and unbelievers. It was open for all to freely investigate.

The Story Of Sir William Ramsay

An example of the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament can be found in the story of Sir William Ramsay. In the nineteenth century it was widely believed that the New Testament was an invention of the second-century church. Sir William Ramsay provides us with an example of how an honest scholar of history can change his perspective when faced by incontrovertible evidence from history and archaeology. Ramsay began his historical research toward the end of the nineteenth century when he was taught that the New Testament was not written in the first century and was not historically reliable. Although the New Testament Book of Acts contained a variety of eyewitness historical references, liberal critics rejected its historicity and declared it untrue.

As a young historian, Ramsay was determined to develop an independent historical/geographical study of first-century Asia Minor. He assumed the Book of Acts was unreliable and ignored its historical allusions in his studies. The amount of usable historical information concerning first-century Asia Minor, however, was too little for him to proceed very far with his work. That led him, almost in desperation, to consult the Book of Acts for any help possible. Ramsay discovered that it was remarkably accurate and true to first-century history and topography.

Change Of Mind

Ramsay testified to what changed his mind:

I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without prejudice in favour of the conclusions which I shall now seek to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tübingen theory had at one time quite convinced me. It did not then lie in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely, but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. In fact, beginning with a fixed idea that the work was essentially a second century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations (Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul The Traveler and Roman Citizen. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1962, p. 36).

Firsthand Witness

Since many historical details, national boundaries, and government structures in Asia Minor were different in the second century from what they had been in the first, it is reasonable to conclude that the actual author of Luke and Acts was a first-century author, not a second-century one.

Acts 14

Acts 14:1-6, for example, was in historical dispute for many years. The passage implies that Lystra and Derbe were cities in the district of Lycaonia but Iconium was in a different district. Later Roman writers such as Cicero contradicted the passage, asserting that Iconium was also in Lycaonia. For years this was used to show the historical unreliability of Acts.

Evidence Discovered

In 1910, however, Sir William Ramsay discovered an inscription declaring that the first century Iconium was under the authority of
Phrygia from A.D. 37 to A.D. 72. It was only during these years that Iconium was not under the authority of Lycaonia. Not only did this discovery confirm the accuracy of the statement in Acts 14, it showed that whoever wrote this passage knew what district Iconium was in at that time. That places the author as an eyewitness to the events.

Further Confirmation

K. A. Kitchen gives further comment on Ramsay's work:

Ever since the . . . explorations and discoveries of William Ramsay earlier this century, the accuracy of Luke as a historian and reporter has been upheld by a multiplicity of details, particularly in the Book of Acts. He assigns the right titles to the proper officials at the correct periods of time in question. Such as the proconsul in Cyprus (Acts 13:7) and of Achaia (Acts 18:12), the Asiarchs at Ephesus (Acts 19:31), among others . . . Luke was careful to entitle Herod Antipas the Tetrarch of Galilee, not loosely 'king' as many of his subjects flatteringly did (Kenneth Kitchen, The Bible in Its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today, Downers Grove IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977, pp. 132,133).

The classical historian, A. N. Sherwin-White, declares,

For Acts the confirmation of its historicity is overwhelming . . . any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted (A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, Oxford: At the Claredon Press, 1963, p. 189).

F. F. Bruce, a classical scholar turned biblical scholar, observes,

It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament than have many theologians. Somehow or other, there are people who regard a 'sacred book' as ipso facto under suspicion, and demand much more corroborative evidence for such a work than they would for an ordinary secular or pagan writing. From the viewpoint of the historian, the same standards must apply to both (F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984, p. 15).

Conclusion On Luke

Ramsay's study led him to conclude that Luke's history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthiness (Ramsay, ibid. p. 81) and Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements trustworthy . . . this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians (Sir William Ramsay,
The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1953, p. 222).

From the evidence gathered by Ramsay, we discover that Luke, author of the greatest portion of the New Testament (Luke and Acts) and an eyewitness of many events during the growth of the first-century church, was a careful historian.


From the evidence that we have available the New Testament matches up well with what we know of secular history.  

Are The Writings Of Paul Trustworthy?

Though the gospels were written a relatively short time after the death and resurrection of Christ what about the letters of the Apostle Paul? When were they composed? How do they help with the reliability of the New Testament?

Possibly Earlier

Some of the letters of the Apostle Paul may actually have been written earlier than the gospels. For example, First Thessalonians was written approximately A.D. 51, while the first letter to the Corinthians was penned about A.D. 56. Obviously, all of his letters were written before A.D. 67, when he died.

Confirmed The Gospels

The testimony of the Apostle Paul confirms the evidence presented in the gospel accounts concerning Jesus Christ.  

A. Creator Of The Universe

John tells us that Jesus was the Creator of the universe.

All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (John 1:3).

Paul also testified that Jesus was the Creator of the universe:

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16).

B. Obeyed The Jewish Law

Jesus was always obedient to the law of God. He asked if anyone had ever seen Him sin.

Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? (John 8:46).

No one could give an example  - because He did not sin. In the same way, Paul emphasized that Jesus was obedient to the Old Testament law:

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Galatians 4:4).

C. Betrayed

All four gospels agree that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot record the fact. Paul also spoke of Jesus' betrayal by Judas:

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you; that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread (1 Corinthians 11:23).

D. Crucified

All four gospels are consistent that Jesus died by means of crucifixion. Paul mentions Jesus' death by crucifixion as the cornerstone of his message: But we preach Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).

E. Rose From The Dead

Again, all four gospels testify that Jesus rose from the dead. Paul also confirmed that Christ rose from the dead:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for ours sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).
Important Points

Three points must be emphasized concerning the testimony of Paul.

A. Contemporary Of The Disciples

The Apostle Paul, though not an eyewitness to the events of the life of Christ, was living at the same time as the disciples who were eyewitnesses. Therefore he was their contemporary.

B. He Wrote Within Thirty Years Of The Events

Paul's letters were composed within thirty years of the events of the life and ministry of Jesus. This is far too short a time for him to have radically changed the message of Jesus without receiving criticism from both believing and non-believing eyewitnesses of the events.

For example, First Thessalonians is probably the earliest letter that Paul wrote. It can be dated around the year A.D. 51 - about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

C. Challenged His Readers To Investigate The Evidence

Paul challenged his readers to investigate for themselves the evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ.   

He was seen by over five hundred brothers at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present (1 Corinthians 15:6).

Many eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection were still alive when Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. Anyone doubting the fact of the resurrection could check out their testimony.


We conclude that the testimony of the Apostle Paul adds further evidence to the trustworthiness of the gospel's picture of Jesus.

When Were The New Testament Documents Written?

The time of the composition of the New Testament text is extremely important, because if the documents were written and circulated at an early date, the eyewitnesses would still be living. They could either verify or deny the events recorded.

The evidence shows that the four Gospels were written in a relatively short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This can first be seen by examining the internal evidence of the New Testament itself.

City Of Jerusalem And Temple Still Standing

The first three Gospels, and possibly also the fourth, were apparently written while the city of Jerusalem was still standing. Each of the first three Gospels contain predictions by Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), but none records the fulfillment. We know that the city and Temple were destroyed by Titus the Roman in A.D. 70. Hence, the composition of the first three Gospels must have occurred sometime before this event, otherwise their destruction would have been recorded.

The Book Of Acts

The Book of Acts also provides us with a clue as to when the gospels were written. Acts records the highlights in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. The book concludes with Paul at Rome awaiting trial before Caesar. The inference is that Acts was written while Paul was still alive, seeing his death is not recorded. Since there is good evidence that Paul died in the Neronian persecution about A.D. 67, the Book of Acts can be dated approximately A.D. 62.


If Acts were written about A.D. 62, then this helps us date the gospels, since the Book of Acts is the second half of a treatise written by Luke to a man named Theophilus. Since we know that the gospel of Luke was written before the Book of Acts, we can then date the Gospel of Luke sometime around A.D. 60 or before.

The Brother Who Was Well-Known

There may be further evidence for an early date for Luke's gospel. Paul wrote of a brother who was well-known among the churches for the gospel.

And we have sent along with him the brother whose fame in the gospel has spread through all the churches (2 Corinthians 8:18).

There is ancient testimony that this refers to Luke and his written gospel. If this is speaking of Luke and the gospel he composed, then we have it well-known in the mid-fifties of the first century.

Mark As A Source

There may be a reference in the writings of Luke that he used Mark as a written source. John Mark is called a minister by Luke in Acts 13:5  (the Greek word
huparetas). In 1:2, Luke says he derived the information for his gospel from those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. The term translated minister is the same Greek word huparetas. It is possible that this could be a reference to Mark as one of his written sources.

Mark Possibly Written Before Luke

Furthermore, modern scholarship has generally assumed that the Gospel of Mark was written before Luke. If this is the case, then we are somewhere in the fifties of the first century when this book was composed. Since Jesus' death and resurrection occurred approximately in the year A.D. 30, these two gospels were written during the time when eyewitnesses, both friendly and unfriendly, were still alive. These eyewitnesses could either verify or falsify the information contained in the gospels.


We now go a step further by considering Matthew's gospel. According to the unanimous testimony of the early church Matthew was the first gospel written. The church father Eusebius places the date of Matthew's gospel in A.D. 41. If this is true, then we have a third independent source about the life of Christ written during the eyewitness period.


The Gospel of John is usually assumed to have been the last of the four gospels composed. John testified that he was an eyewitness to the events that he recorded.

Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name John (20:30:31).
This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true. (John 21:24).

Internal Evidence

There is also internal evidence that John himself wrote before A.D. 70.  

Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes (John 5:2).

John describes the sheep gate as still standing at the time he wrote. The sheep gate was destroyed in the year A.D. 70, along with the rest of the city of Jerusalem. This could very well be an indication that John wrote his gospel while the city of Jerusalem was still standing. Greek scholar Daniel Wallace writes the following concerning this verse.

The present tense should be used as indicating present time from the viewpoint of the speaker. The implication seems to be that this gospel was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Although many may object to a pre-70 date for John's gospel, they must, in support of their view, reckon with this text (Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics, Zondervan, 1997, p. 531).

The late John A.T. Robinson, a liberal scholar, in his book
Redating The New Testament, concluded there is sufficient evidence for believing that every New Testament book was composed before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Early Date

When all the historical and textual evidence is amassed, it becomes clear that the New Testament was composed at a very early date either by eyewitnesses or those who recorded eyewitness testimony. The eminent archaeologist William F. Albright concluded,

In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 75) (Interview with Christianity Today, January 18, 1963).
Albright also stated:

Thanks to the Qumran discoveries, the New Testament proves to be what it was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and his immediate followers between cir. 24 and cir. 80 A.D. (W.F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963, p. 29).

John Wenham writes the following concerning the available evidence we have to date the New Testament:

1. Luke knew Mark's Gospel.

The dates should be reckoned working back from Acts, the natural date of which is A.D. 62.

. Luke's gospel was apparently well known in the mid-50's.

According to tradition, Mark's gospel gives Peter's teaching in Rome.

Peter's first visit to Rome was probably 42-44 and Mark's gospel was probably written about 45.

The universal tradition of the early church puts Matthew first, which means a date around 40.

(John Wenham,
Redating Matthew, Mark, And Luke, Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP, 1992, p. 243).

Legal expert Simon Greenleaf makes a sensible conclusion concerning the dating of the gospels:

The earlier date, however, is argued with greater force, for the improbability that the Christians would be left for several years without a general and authentic history of our Savior's ministry (Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists, Kregel, 1995, p. 19).

Testimony Of Unbelievers

We add to this the testimony of unbelievers. Unwittingly, they have given testimony to the early composition of the New Testament. Speaking of Celsus, a man living in the second century who hated Christianity, Bishop Fallows writes:

This unbeliever, although he caused great annoyance to the believers in Christ living in his day, and seemed to be disturbing the foundations of the Christian faith, rendered more real service to Christianity than any father of undisputed orthodoxy in the Church. He admits all the grand facts and doctrines of the gospel, as they were preached by the Apostles, and contained in the acknowledged writings, for the sake of opposing. He makes in his attacks eighty quotations from the New Testament, and appeals to it as containing the sacred writings of Christians, universally received by them as credible and Divine.
He is, therefore, the very best witness we can summon to prove that the New Testament was not written hundreds of years after the Apostles were dust; but in less than a century and a half had been received by the Christian Church all over the world. He expressly quotes both the synoptic Gospels, as they were termed (the first three Gospels), and the Gospel of St. John (Bishop Fallows,
Mistakes of Ingersoll and His Answers, pp. 91,92).

Internal Evidence From The New Testament

There is internal evidence from the New Testament itself that parts of it were already considered as Scripture. Peter had the following to say about Paul's writings.

And regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Peter puts Paul's writings on the same level as the rest of the Scripture.

Paul And Luke

In addition, Paul quotes Luke's gospel and calls it Scripture.

For the Scripture says,  You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing, and The laborer is worthy of his wages (1 Timothy 5:18).

This quotation is from Luke 10:7. When Paul wrote First Timothy it seems Luke's gospel had already been accepted as Scripture.

Recognized Early

The completed New Testament was recognized early in the history of the church. Tertullian, writing in the first two decades of the third century, was the first known person to call the Christian Scriptures the New Testament. The title had appeared earlier (190) in a composition against Montanism by an unknown author.

Consequently, when all the evidence is in, it shows that not only the New Testament documents were written soon after the events they recorded, they were also recognized at an early date to be authoritative by those who read them.

Dating Of The New Testament

When all the historical and textual evidence is amassed, it becomes clear that the New Testament was composed at a very early date by eyewitnesses or those who recorded eyewitness testimony. The eminent archaeologist William F. Albright concluded,

In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 75) (Interview with Christianity Today, January 18, 1963).

Albright also stated,

Thanks to the Qumran discoveries, the New Testament proves to be what it was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and his immediate followers between cir. 24 and cir. 80 A.D. (W.F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963, p. 29).


The evidence is clear. The New Testament is a reliable historical document containing firsthand evidence of the life and ministry of Jesus as well as the ministry of the early church.

Could The New Testament Writers Have Had A Faulty Memory?

If we grant that the New Testament was composed at an early date what about the possibility that the writers had a faulty memory of what occurred?

Relied On Memory

Since the people in the first century were not as literate as modern man, they relied more upon memory than we do today. John Warwick Montgomery makes an appropriate comment:

We know from the Mishna that it was a Jewish custom to memorize a Rabbi's teaching, for a good pupil was like 'a plastered cistern that loses not a drop' [Mishna Aboth, II.8]. And we can be sure that the early Church, impressed as it was with Jesus, governed itself by this ideal (John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1964, pp. 37,38).

Vivid Impression

The events of the life of Christ would have made a vivid impression on all of the people who witnessed them. After one of Jesus' miracles the Bible says,

All were amazed and glorified God saying, 'We never saw anything like this!' (Mark 2:12).

Because miracles were not the norm, any extraordinary event would not soon be forgotten.

Sufficient Number Of Eyewitnesses

In addition, the number of eyewitnesses to the miracles of Christ were sufficient. The Apostle Paul said that the resurrection of Christ was witnessed by over five hundred people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6).

Done Publicly

The miracles of Jesus were done in public view as Paul told King Agrippa:

For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner (Acts 26:26).

It must be remembered that not all of the eyewitnesses to the biblical miracles were believers. If the disciples tended to distort the facts; the unbelieving eyewitnesses would have immediately objected.

Does Not Fit

These reasons demonstrate that the faulty memory hypothesis does not fit the facts. The New Testament was composed such a short time after the events occurred that it would be folly to assume the writers' memories were so faulty that neither they nor the unbelievers could remember the actual events of the life of Christ.


What Is Higher Criticism?

Higher criticism is the discipline concerned with the authorship of documents. While it is perfectly valid to study the authorship of biblical documents, higher criticism of the Bible has gone far beyond that. Most higher critics seem determined to establish that the Bible is of purely human origin. They deny the very idea that the Bible is the infallible Word of God.

Not New

Such denial is not new, of course, for we see it way back in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent said to Eve,

Has God indeed said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden? (Genesis 3:1).

The first thing we hear from the mouth of the serpent is the denial of God's Word.

No Writing

One of the original contentions of higher criticism was that the practice of writing was unknown during the time of Moses; therefore, Moses could not have authored the first five books of the Bible. Sir Frederic Kenyon, the great biblical scholar, wrote:

About the middle of the nineteenth century there was a period when it was often maintained that writing was unknown in the time of Moses and the Judges and the earlier kings, and consequently that the narratives of these early periods could not be based upon authentic records. This disbelief in the antiquity of writing has been completely disproved by the discoveries of the last century. First of all, in 1852 and 1853 Henry Layard and his assistant Rassam discovered the libraries of the kings of Assyria at Nineveh, which contained hundreds of tablets of baked clay (the form of book used in Mesopotamia), including the chronicles of Sennacherib, Essarhaddon, and other rulers contemporary with the kings of Israel and Judah. Others contained the Babylonian narratives of the Creation and Deluge. Subsequent discoveries carried back proof of the early use of writing far beyond the time of Moses and even of Abraham (Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Story of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, p. 7).

Thus we see that one of the original contentions of higher critics—that writing did not exist during the early biblical period—has been thoroughly refuted by recent findings. This is but one example of how higher critics refuse to consider in an honest way the Bible's own testimony as to its origin.

Unfair Treatment

Higher criticism claims to treat the Bible as it would any other book. Yet with any other book, good scholarship would demand that we at least consider the book's own statement of who wrote it and why, and that we test it out. In the example we have seen, higher criticism came to faulty conclusions because it insisted that the Bible must be wrong and assumed that Moses—although educated in Pharaoh's court, the most advanced environment of his time—couldn't have written the Books of Moses.

Valid To A Point

So we conclude that the higher criticism is a valid discipline to a point. But as it has been practiced, it shows a dangerous tendency to reject the idea that the Bible might be what is says it is, God's Word.

What Is Form Criticism?

One of the modern ways in which the Gospels are studied is through the discipline known as form criticism. Form criticism attempts to classify the material found in the Gospels according to their literary form. Such classifications include miracles stories, sayings and narratives. Consequently the Gospels are divided up into different segments known as pericopes and classified accordingly.

Go Too Far

While there is nothing wrong with categorizing the Gospels into these different forms, many critics go a step further and attempt to determine the reliability of certain events or sayings according to their form.

Supernatural Jesus

F.F. Bruce points out that form criticism confirms the fact of the supernatural portrait of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament.

But perhaps the most important result to which Form Criticism points is that, no matter how far back we may press our researches into the roots of the gospel story, no matter how we classify the gospel material, we never arrive at a non-supernatural Jesus . . . All parts of the gospel record are shown by various groupings to be pervaded by a consistent picture of Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God . . . Thus Form Criticism has added its contribution to the overthrow of the hope once fondly held, that by getting back to the primitive stage of gospel tradition we might recover a purely human Jesus, who simply taught the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1979, p. 33).

Problems With Form Critical Approach

While there are some positive features about the form-critical approach, certain problems need to be considered. For one thing, the view of many form critics is that the early church radically changed the events and sayings of Jesus to fit their own needs. The evidence, however does not support this view and is refuted by the following points:

Not Enough Time

The time between the death of Jesus (about A.D. 33) and the first written New Testament documents (Matthew (about A.D. 40, Mark A.D. 45, and 1 Thessalonians, A.D. 51) is too short for all these supposed changes to occur. Furthermore, the entire New Testament was composed when many eyewitnesses to the New Testament events were still alive. Any major difference what occurred in the life of Christ and what was recorded would have been easily detected.

Minimize Eyewitness Role

Some form critics maintain that the distortions of the account of the life of Christ took place during His lifetime. But the biblical writers appeal to the fact that they were eyewitnesses of the events they describe. These form critics minimize the role of the eyewitnesses.

No Biographical Interest?

Another argument is that the early church had no biographical interest whatsoever. However, the evidence shows just the opposite. The Gospel accounts are filled with historical details or allusions. Matthew, for example, records Jesus' genealogy (chapter 1), the visit of the Magi to Herod and the slaughter of the innocents (chapter 2), and the events associated with the trial and death of Jesus (chapters 26-27).

In the writings of Luke we also find many historical references. These include:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness (Luke 3:1,2).

In this passage seven different people and their governmental positions are listed in order to indicate the time that God's Word came to John the Baptist. The idea that the Gospel writers were not interested in any biographical or historical details of the life of Jesus is not supported by the facts.

Gospels Are Not Folklore

Though many of the form critics would place the Gospels on the same level as folklore, the evidence speaks to the contrary. The life of Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament, is entirely different from folklore. This can be readily seen from other works that attempt to fill in the details of the missing years of the life of Christ. Fanciful stories abound. The miracles recorded in the Bible are always for a specific purpose in the ongoing plan of God and they are accompanied by sufficient eyewitness testimony.

General Outline Forgotten?

It is hard to imagine that the Gospel writers remembered the specific details of the life of Christ but forgot the general outline, as some form critics would have us believe. It is much more plausible to assume that the disciples were correct on the general outline as well as the details.

We conclude that form criticism is a legitimate discipline insofar as it classifies the sayings and deeds of Jesus according to their form without attempting to prove the accuracy of the statements based merely upon the form in which they have been found.

Conclusion On Biblical Criticism

We need to keep several things in mind as we consider the various disciplines known as biblical criticism. C.S. Lewis, who was intimately familiar with the works of biblical critics, points out the shortcoming of their methods:

All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the text it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences . . . This is done with immense erudition and great ingenuity. At first sight it is very convincing . . . What forearms me against all these Reconstructions is the fact that I have seen from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way . . . My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record 100 percent failure . . . Now this surely ought to give us pause. The reconstruction of the history of a text, when the text is ancient, sounds very convincing. But one is after all sailing by dead reckoning; the results cannot be checked by fact. In order to decide how reliable a method is, what more could you ask for than to be shown an instance where the same method is at work and we have the facts to check it by? Well, that is what I have done. And we find, that when this check is available, the results are either always, or nearly always, wrong. The 'assured results of modern scholarship,' as to the way in which an old book was written, are 'assured,' we may conclude because the men who knew the facts are dead and can't blow the gaff (Cited by Walter Hooper, ed., Christian Reflections, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1967, n.p.).

Lewis makes several notable points in his essay. Form criticism is not an objective science but a subjective experience based upon the notions of the critic. Form critics are not guided by firm scientific principles. The critics who state their results with great assurance cannot come to any consensus of agreement among themselves. One would think if biblical criticism were such an exact science, as some form critics would have us believe, then they would agree on the results.

Fails Practical Test

The critical approach to Scripture also fails the practical test. If the same critics, who lived at the same time, spoke the same language, and had the same background, still could not reconstruct the circumstances in which Lewis wrote, what makes us think that they can do better when they are dealing with writers of thousands of years ago, writing in a different language with a different culture?

Consequently, where form criticism attempts to answer the question of the historical circumstances in which the biblical writers composed their works, they are found wanting.

What Should We Conclude About The Historical Accuracy Of The New Testament?

After looking at the question of the New Testament's historical accuracy we can arrive at the following conclusions:

1.The question of the New Testament's historical accuracy is of utmost importance because God has revealed Himself by means of historical events. This is especially true in the New Testament when God became a man.

2.Those who wrote about Jesus were either eyewitnesses to the events in His life or recorded eyewitness testimony.

3.The New Testament was written soon after the death and resurrection of Christ. There was not enough time for the message to be altered.

4. We know that many of the New Testament books were read aloud in the churches. The message was open for all to hear and evaluate.

The disciples were able to be cross-examined by their contemporaries about the events they proclaimed. They preached their message in the very city where many of the events took place.

5. Paul's letters were written during the eyewitness period. They confirmed many of the main facts of the gospel.

6.The evidence concerning the events, places, and names mentioned in the New Testament conclusively affirms the basic historical reliability of the text. Therefore, the testimony of law comes into play. Since the document has come down to us where we would expect to find it, without any tampering and that it contains no obvious errors or contradictions, it should be given the benefit of the doubt in matters where there is no independent evidence to confirm or deny its teachings. Therefore, we should rightly assume that the New Testament is a reliable historical document