Summary: The New Testament is the best source of historical information from the time period of Jesus and it stands the test of scutiny. Therefore it is not only reliable it is the most reliable document of its kind!
Is the New Testament a reliable source of information?
The four gospels (Matthew, mark, Luke and John) give us a biography for the life of Jesus and they provide us with a wealth of information. One statement that I heard just recently is that the gospels were written as a way to communicate faith and have very little to do with actual history. This deeply disturbs me, because the life of Jesus is an historical event and our faith cannot be separated from that history. In essence, we have a faith that is based on historical facts.
Here are a few proofs of the historical nature of our faith
1. Jesus of Nazareth was a real person: There is more than enough historical information outside of the gospel records to prove that Jesus was a real person. Both Jewish and Roman historians claim that Jesus was an actual person. There is no way that He was a mythical figure or that the church made Him up.
2. Jesus was a great teacher: The gospels record the life and the teachings of Jesus. Additional historians also tell us that Jesus was a great teacher who created great controversy in Israel during the first century AD. The truth is that Jesus is still causing controversy today.
3. Jesus worked miracles: Many of the ancient historians had a negative view of the early church, specifically the Jewish leadership. The Jew viewed the church as a dangerous sect that was a perversion of Judaism. However, Jewish records in the Mishnah and the Talmud recognize the power that Jesus had to heal and cast out demons.
4. Jesus was crucified: Again sources outside of the gospels report that Jesus was crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate. This is one of the primary facts of the gospels that cannot be truly questioned.
5. Jesus was raised from the dead: The gospels show without any doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day. Historians do not give a record of that event but they do record the events following the resurrection. Historians show the basis for the early church beliefs were based on the resurrection, that the disciples believed that they saw Jesus alive after His death on the cross and further more that Christians were willing to die for that belief.
This gives you a brief glimpse of some of the historical basis for the belief in Jesus but we need to get back to the original question about the validity of the gospel accounts. This leads us to another basic question: where does the gospel record come from?
The New Testament was rewritten from its original copies and passed down through the centuries by the work of scribes. This would seem like a difficult process that would be prone to errors and mistakes. However, we have a vast array of manuscripts that give us material of the gospels with very little variants or discrepancies in their records.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12
Further New Testament Validations
1. The shear number of manuscripts
The New Testament has been discovered in multiple languages giving the same basic information. There are currently 5,309 Greek manuscripts, over 10,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, 4,101 copies in Slavic and 2,000 plus copies in Ethiopic. In all, we have over 24,000 manuscripts in 15 different languages and the accounts of the gospels are virtually the same. (Adapted from Evidence that Demands a Verdict p. 40)
2. The time span between original writing and earliest copies
In our modern way of life news spreads fast. Literally, something could happen tonight and be in the newspapers by tomorrow morning or even on the late evening news at eleven. This just simply was not the case in the ancient society. History was not recorded because ancient society was oral and not written. The people would carefully pass news person to person and place to place, until it could be recorded.
Here is a chart to illustrate my point:
Writer Date written Earliest copy Time span # of copies
Caesar 100-44 BC 900 AD 1000 10
Plato 427-347BC 900 AD 1200 7
Tacitus 100 AD 1100 AD 1000 20
Minor works 100 AD 1000 AD 900 1
Homer (Illiad) 900 BC 400 BC 500 643
N. T. 40-100AD 125AD 25 24,000 +
(Evidence that Demands a Verdict p. 42-43)
There is a great validity to the writing of the New Testament than any other work in ancient history and because the time gape between original writing and earliest copies is so short, it is virtually not an issue. There is really no time gap between the New Testament copies and the original works when you compare it to other works during the same time period. Literally, there is no argument on this area of validity.