Can we trust the New Testament as a historical document?

by Matt Slick

Many people do not believe that the Bible is a reliable document of history. But, the fact is the Bible is very trustworthy as a historical document. If we were to look at a chart that compared the Biblical documents with other ancient documents, we would see that the Bible is in a class by itself regarding the number of ancient copies and their reliability. Please consider the chart below.1

Earliest CopyApproximate Time Span between original & copyNumber of CopiesAccuracy of Copies
Lucretiusdied 55 or 53 B.C. 1,100 yrs.2----
PlinyA.D. 61-113.A.D. 850.750 yrs.7----
Plato427-347 B.C.A.D. 900.1,200 yrs.7----
Demosthenes4th Cent. B.C.A.D. 1100.800 yrs.8----
Herodotus480-425 B.C.A.D. 900.1,300 yrs.8----
SuetoniusA.D. 75-160.A.D. 950.800 yrs.8----
Thucydides460-400 B.C.A.D. 900.1,300 yrs.8----
Euripides480-406 B.C.A.D. 1100.1,300 yrs.9----
Aristophanes450-385 B.C.A.D. 900.1,200 yrs.10----
Caesar100-44 B.C.A.D. 900.1,000 yrs.10----
Livy59 BC-A.D. 17----???20----
Tacituscirca A.D. 100.A.D. 1100.1,000 yrs.20----
Aristotle384-322 B.C.A.D. 1100.1,400 yrs.49----
Sophocles496-406 B.C.A.D. 1000.1,400 yrs.193----
Homer (Iliad)900 B.C.400 B.C.500 yrs.64395%
1st Cent. A.D. (A.D. 50-100)2nd Cent. A.D.
(c. A.D. 130 f.)
less than 100 years560099.5%

It should be obvious that the Biblical documents, especially the New Testament documents, are superior in their quantity, time span from original occurrence, and textual reliability. People still question if the documents are reliably transmitted to us, but they should rather ask if the Biblical documents record actual historical accounts.

The Bible is a book of History

It could be said that the Bible is a book of history--and it is. The Bible describes places, people, and events in various degrees of detail. It is essentially an historical account of the people of God throughout thousands of years. If you open to almost any page in the Bible, you will find a name of a place and/or a person. Much of this can be verified from archaeology. Though archaeology cannot prove that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it has the ability to prove whether or not some events and locations described therein are true or false. So far, however, there isn't a single archaeological discovery that disproves the Bible in any way.

Nevertheless, many people used to think that the Bible had numerous historical errors in it such as Luke's account of Lysanias being the tetrarch of Abiline in about A.D. 27 (Luke 3:1). For years scholars used this "factual error" to prove Luke was wrong because it was common knowledge that Lysanias was not a tetrarch but the ruler of Chalcis about 50 years earlier than what Luke described. But an archaeological inscription was found that said that Lysanias was the tetrarch in Abila near Damascus at the time that Luke said. It turns out that there had been two people name Lysanias, and Luke had accurately recorded the facts.

Also, the walls of Jericho have been found--destroyed just as the Bible says. Many critics doubted that Nazareth ever existed, yet archaeologists have found a first-century synagogue inscription at Caesarea that has verified its existence. Finds have verified the existence of Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas. The remains of the Apostle Peter's house have been found at Capernaum. Bones with nail scars through the wrists and feet have been uncovered as well demonstrating the actuality of crucifixion. The High Priest Caiaphas' bones have been discovered in an ossuary (a box used to store bones).

There is, of course, a host of archaeological digs that corroborate Biblical records on places such as Bethsaida, Bethany, Caesarea Philippi, Capernaum, Cyprus, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, etc. 

  1. An inscribed stone was found that refers to Pontius Pilate, named as 'Prefect of Judaea.’ (The New Bible Dictionary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1962).
    1. Luke 3:1, "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea . . . "
  2. "A decree of Claudius found at Delphi (Greece) describes Gallio as proconsul of Achaia in              AD 51, thus giving a correlation with the ministry of Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:12)," (The New Bible Dictionary).
    1. Acts 18:12, "But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat."
  3. Excavations have revealed a text naming a benefactor Erastus which may be a reference relating to the city-treasurer of Rom. 16:23. (The New Bible Dictionary).
    1. Rom. 16:23, "Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, the brother."
  4. At Ephesus parts of the temple of Artemis have been uncovered as is mentioned in Acts 19:28-41. (The New Bible Dictionary).
    1. Acts 19:28, "And when they heard this and were filled with rage, they began crying out, saying, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians."
  5. "It is known that Quirinius was made governor of Syria by Augustus in AD 6. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay discovered several inscriptions that indicated that Quirinius was governor of Syria on two occasions, the first time several years prior to this date . . . archaeology has provided some unexpected and supportive answers. Additionally, while supplying the background behind these events, archaeology also assists us in establishing several facts: (1) A taxation-census was a fairly common procedure in the Roman Empire, and it did occur in Judea, in particular. (2) Persons were required to return to their home city in order to fulfill the requirements of the process. (3) These procedures were apparently employed during the reign of Augustus (37 BC–AD 14), placing it well within the general time frame of Jesus’ birth."2
  6. "The historical trustworthiness of Luke has been attested by a number of inscriptions. The ‘politarchs’ of Thessalonica (Acts 17:6, 8) were magistrates and are named in five inscriptions from the city in the 1st century AD. Similarly Publius is correctly designated proµtos (‘first man’) or Governor of Malta (Acts 28:7). Near Lystra inscriptions record the dedication to Zeus of a statue of Hermes by some Lycaonians, and nearby was a stone altar for ‘the Hearer of Prayer’ (Zeus) and Hermes. This explains the local identification of Barnabas and Paul with Zeus (Jupiter) and Hermes (Mercury) respectively (Acts 14:11). Derbe, Paul’s next stopping-place, was identified by Ballance in 1956 with Kaerti Hüyük near Karaman (ASLuke 2:2) and to Lysanias as tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1) have likewise received inscriptional support." (The New Bible Dictionary, 7, 1957, pp. 147ff.). Luke’s earlier references to Quirinius as governor of Syria before the death of Herod I (Luke 2:2) and to Lysanias as tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1) have likewise received inscriptional support." (The New Bible Dictionary).

There are many such archaeological verifications of Biblical events and places. Is the Bible trustworthy? Absolutely! Remember, no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted the Bible. Therefore, since it has been verified over and over again throughout the centuries, we can continue to trust it as an accurate historical document.

For more on this see, Archaeological Evidence verifying Biblical events and places.

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  • 1. This chart was adapted from three sources: 1) Christian Apologetics, by Norman Geisler, 1976, p. 307, 2) the article "Archaeology and History attest to the Reliability of the Bible," by Richard M. Fales, Ph.D., in The Evidence Bible, Compiled by Ray Comfort, Bridge-Logos Publishers, Gainesville, FL, 2001, p. 163, and 3) A Ready Defense, by Josh Mcdowell, 1993, p. 45.
  • 2. Habermas, Gary R., The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1996.