What is this? | Contents Page | Summary

Overview Why Apologetics? Did Jesus Exist?  Is the Bible Reliable?  Jesus' Claims  Was Jesus God?  Conclusion

Overview > Is the New Testament reliable? > External Evidence Test

The External Evidence Test

The third test of historicity is that of external evidence - whether other historical material confirms or denies the internal testimony of the documents themselves. In other words, what sources (and other external factors) are there, apart from the literature under analysis, which substantiates its accuracy, reliability, and authenticity? [6 p. 54]

  1. Does other historical material confirm or deny the internal testimony of the documents i.e. other sources of evidence apart from the NT itself

    • Extra-Biblical authors. Friends of John confirm the internal evidence.

    • Martyrs. Numerous people, who were in a position to know the truth, were prepared to die for their faith

    • Archeological Evidence has shown that the writers (especially Luke) were excellent historians and accurate in all their details.

    • Historical-Geographical Evidence. Jesus seems to have done and said certain things in relationship to His surroundings.

    • Jewish Cultural Evidence. The NT accounts are confirmed by historical knowledge of first-century Jewish culture.

    • There exists external writings about Jesus

The evidence from extra-Biblical authors

Two friends of the apostle John confirm the internal evidence from John’s accounts. The historian Eusebius preserves writings of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis (AD 130). [6 p. 54]

The Elder [apostle John] used to say this also: “Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he [Peter] mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter … So then Mark made no mistake … for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, nor to include any false statements among them.

Iraneus, Bishop of Lyons in AD 180, who was a student of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (who had been a Christian for eighty-six years and was a disciple of John the Apostle), wrote [6 p. 54]

Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews [i.e. Jews] in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure [i.e. death, which strong tradition places at the time of the Neronian persecution in 64], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on His breast [this is a reference to John 13:15 and 21:20], himself produced his gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.

The evidence from martyrs

There are numerous examples of people who were prepared to die because of their faith - a faith based on the reliability and trustworthiness of the New Testament accounts. Here are two examples:

Ignatius (AD 70-110). He was Bishop of Antioch and was martyred for his faith in Christ. He knew all the apostles and was a disciple of Polycarp. Ignatius is said to have been thrown to the lions in the colosseum at Rome. He had ample material and witnesses to discover scriptural trustworthiness, and the fact that he was prepared to die for his faith, supports the reliability of the Scripture (the New Testament documents) on which his faith rested. [6 p. 437] [5 p. 51]

Polycarp (AD 70-156) was a disciple of John and was martyred at 86 years of age because of his relentless devotion to Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. He was burned at the stake. His death demonstrated his trust in the accuracy of the Scripture as he certainly had ample contacts to know the truth. [6 p. 437] [5 p. 51]

Archeological Evidence

Archeology often provides some extremely powerful external evidence. It provides evidence of accuracy about the events that are recorded. Does archeology support or contradict the testimony of the New Testament documents? Not too long ago, some discounted the Biblical record because it frequently referred to things not mentioned by any source outside the Bible. However, discoveries by archaeologists in recent years have vindicated the New Testament. [2] For example,

  • A census, and Quirinius governor at the time of Jesus' birth? - Luke 2:1-3

It was once argued that Luke was in error and that there was no such census; that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at that time and that people did not have to return to their ancestral home. [2]

But archaeological discoveries have proven otherwise. We now know that the Romans had a regular enrolment of taxpayers and held censuses every 14 years (begun by Augustus Caesar). An inscription found in Antioch tells of Quirinius being governor of Syria around 7 B.C. (evidently he was governor twice). [2]

A papyrus found in Egypt says concerning the conducting of a census:

"Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their home should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of the enrolment..." [2]

  • Who is this Lysanias? - Luke 3:1

The only Lysanias known to ancient historians was one who was killed in 36 B.C. This caused some to question Luke's reliability. [2]

However, an inscription was found near Damascus. It speaks of "Freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch" and is dated between 14 and 29 AD. [2]

  • Whoever heard of "The Pavement" (Gabbatha)? - John 19:13

For centuries there was no record of the court called "The Pavement" or "Gabbatha". This caused many to say "It's a myth" and, "See, it (the Bible) is not historical" [2]

But William F. Albright in "The Archaeology of Palestine" shows otherwise. This court was the court of the Tower of Antonia. The court was destroyed in 66-70 A.D. during the siege of Jerusalem. It was left buried when the city was rebuilt in the time of Hadrian and was not discovered until recently. [2]

  • Iconium a city of Phyrigia? - Acts 14:6

Archaeologists at first believed Luke's implication to be wrong. That Lystra and Derbe were in Lycaonia and Iconium was not. They based their belief on the writings of Romans such as Cicero who indicated that Iconium was in Lycaonia. Thus, archaeologists said the book of Acts was unreliable. [2]

But in 1910, Sir William Ramsay found a monument, which showed that Iconium was indeed a Phrygian city. Later discoveries continued to confirm this. [2]

  • Whoever heard of "Politarchs"? - Acts 17:6

Since the term, "Rulers Of The City" (Greek "Politarchs"), is not found in the classical literature of the Greeks, it was assumed that Luke was wrong to refer to such an office. [2]

However, some 19 inscriptions have now been found that make use of this title. Five of these are in reference to Thessalonica. [2]

This is just a sampling of the evidence, for entire books have been written providing further examples. Just how accurate is the New Testament in its historical description? [2]

"It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference." - Nelson Glueck (noted Jewish archaeologist). [2]

“Archeology has confirmed countless passages which have been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contradictory to known facts.” - Archeologist Joseph Free. [5 p. 65]

Of special interest is the testimony of Sir William Ramsay. He was trained in the German historical school of the mid- nineteenth century. He was taught that the book of Acts was a product of the mid-second century AD. He was firmly convinced of this and started out his career in archaeology to prove it. However, he was compelled to a complete reversal of his beliefs due to the overwhelming evidence uncovered in his research. His conclusion: [2]

"Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense...in short, this author should be placed along with the greatest of historians."

Historical-Geographical Evidence

Historical geography seeks to relate events in history to geographic locations. Knowing what has happened in a certain location in the past, reveals why Jesus would do and say something at that location when He was there. [6 p. 81]

The Gospel writers often casually refer to geographical features that indicate how familiar they are with the land. Jesus also seems to have done and said certain things in relationship to His surroundings. [6 p. 81] Here are some examples:

At the base of the 9,000-foot high “rock” of Mt Hermon at Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus says to Peter,

“You are Peter [Greek, Petros, a stone], and upon this rock [Greek petra, large rock, bedrock] I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18). [6 p. 82]

From Capernaum on the northwest shore of the sea, one could see several cities on top of hills all around the sea. Directly opposite, on the southeast shore lay Hoppus, the largest city visible to those in Capenaum. Its primary location was not down by the water but high on a hill overlooking the sea. Several other cities and villages perched on hilltops around the Sea of Galilee. This location adds additional insight into Jesus’ statement,

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14) [6 p. 83]

Galilee is a volcanic area. Volcanic rock is everywhere, and thorns grow there rapidly in the summer months. When Jesus told His parable of the four soils, His listeners would have related well to what He said. (Matthew 13:1) [6 p. 83]

Mustard trees still grow in Israel, and one can readily see that their minute seeds (hundreds can fit on the tip of a finger) and 15-foot height fit precisely with Jesus’ parable: [6 p. 84]

"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." (Matthew 13:31,32)

In Jerusalem, from the steps on the southern side of the Temple where rabbis often addressed their pupils, the chalk-white tombstones that cover the Mount of Olives are clearly visible. Jesus may well have looked in that direction as He proclaimed: [6 p. 83]

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27)

Since it would be practically impossible for a later Gentile writer to have knowledge of the historical-geographical context surrounding an event in Jesus’ life, these incidents provide good evidence that what the New Testament writers describe actually happened. [6 p. 81]

Jewish Cultural Evidence

The setting of all four Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is unmistakably first-century Hebrew. Some events may seem strange to us but are perfectly natural in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day. [6 p. 86]

Luke 2:24 speaks of one of many cultural practices mentioned in the Gospel narratives. In obedience to Leviticus 12:2,6,8, Joseph and Mary brought the sacrifice required after the birth of a child. Their offering of two turtledoves or pigeons indicates that they were among the poor of the land. [6 p. 86]

Luke 7:38, speaks of a woman weeping and wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears. Weeping was an important part of Jewish culture. Professional mourners were hired for funerals, and many Jews had ‘tear vases’ where they collected the tears of their grief. [6 p. 86]

Hebrew marriage customs help to explain what otherwise appears to be a contradiction in Matthew 1:18,19. In verse 18, Mary is only betrothed to Joseph, whereas in verse 19, Joseph is called her ‘husband’. This makes sense when we realise that engagement among the Hebrews was considered the beginning of marriage, it was as legally binding as marriage itself, and could not be broken off except by a bill of divorce. It therefore makes sense when Joseph is called the “husband” of Mary. [6 p. 86]

There are many other such examples, and the author’s inclusion of accurate details of first-century Jewish culture provides additional evidence for the accuracy and reliability of the New Testament accounts.

Writings about Jesus

Numerous ancient writings exist that mention Jesus. See the previous section Did Jesus Exist?

External Evidence Test Conclusion

The New Testament more than satisfactorily passes the External Evidence Test. Not only is there external material that confirms the internal testimony of the documents, but factors such as archeology, historical-geography and Jewish customs all lend support to the accuracy of the New Testament. We can again conclude that historical material strongly confirms the accuracy and reliability of the New Testament documents.


(c) 1999 - KnowWhatYouBelieve.com

Comments and suggestions are welcome

This Free Apologetic Study is available in a small group study format