Evidence for Jesus: Testing the transmission evidence


(Vaticanus John 1:1-14a)

By Spencer D Gear

How do we know if the God-man, historical Jesus, existed and was the Jesus manifested according to the New Testament? On Christian Forums, I asked Hillard, “So what historical evidence will you accept to determine the date of Jesus’ birth?”(#16 of this thread). This was his response (#18 of this thread):

Historical evidence is all we need to tell us if there was a particular man named Jesus who was the leader of a group, a few words written thousands of years ago and passed down to us are not enough because too many things have happened in history that might have tainted or changed the writings, don’t forget, people throughout history could be killed for writing the wrong things also peoples opinions are not evidence they are only their opinions.

For all we know the stories in the Bible could have been written by the supporters of a Jewish left or right -wing political nationalist named Jesus who was trying to undermine the Romans, his supporters would write anything if they thought it would help their cause they might even give him a God like status, if all we had were the writings of Stalins supporters we might be misled into thinking he was a really nice man.

In my reply, I said that I take history more seriously than you seem to do and have written on this topic. In determining if the NT is a trustworthy and accurate document, historians use three tests: (1) The Transmission Test; (2) The Internal Evidence Test, and (3) The External Evidence Test.

The transmission test is an examination of how the documents reached us from when they were written. Since we don’t have the original documents, how reliable are the copies we have in:

  • The number of manuscripts (MSS);
  • The time interval between the original and the earliest copy


Transmission Test for Historical Documents (incl. New Testament)

Earliest Copies Time Gap No. of Copies %
Hindu Mahabharata 13th century B.C. 90
Plato c. 400 B.C. A.D. c.900 1300 yrs 7 ?
900 B.C.
(900-700 B.C.?)
400 B.C. ? 500 yrs ? 643 95
Demosthenes 300 B.C. A. D. c. 1100 1,400 yrs 200 ?
Gallic Wars
100-44 B.C. A.D. 900 1,000 yrs 10 ?
Tacitus, Annals A.D. 100 1100 A.D. 1,000 yrs 20 ?
Pliny Secundus,
Natural History
A.D. 61-113 c. A.D. 850 750 yrs 7 ?
New Testament A.D.50-100 c. 114 (fragment)
c. 200 (books)
c. 250 (most of NT)
c. 325 (whole NT)
c. +/- 50 yrs
c. 100 yrs
c. 150 yrs
c. 225 yrs
(with other translations)
The chart above is a comparison of ancient manuscript totals (Josh McDowell, Christianity: Hoax or History? Tyndale House Publishers, 1989, pp. 50-51; Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible. Moody Press, 1986, p. 408)

I am in agreement with the late Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, formerly director and principal librarian of the British Museum, who wrote just before his death:

“The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established” [1]

  • These people who were used by the Lord to write the New Testament, were living in a hostile culture. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies. They would dare not manipulate the facts because they would be challenged by those who wanted to discredit them.
  • A witness must testify of his/her own knowledge. When we apply this to the NT, we see clearly that we have primary evidence from eyewitnesses. I John 1:1 states, ” That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life (NIV)”. [2]

Would you dare to suggest that the writings of Plato, Demosthenes, Caesar, Tacitus and Pliny Secundus are not accurate. The historical writings of the NT present superior evidence to all of these other ancient writings. These are assessments by eminent historians have reached these conclusions about the New Testament.

A.N. Sherwin-White, distinguished Roman historian, says this about Luke’s writings: “For [the Book of] Acts the confirmation of 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.” [3]

Luke is commended by classical historian, G.A. Williamson, for demonstrating “complete familiarity with the thought, expression, and habitual terminology of the speakers, and . . . what memories the people of that time possessed!–if not on written notes, which we have reason to believe were commonly made.” [4]

Thanks to the archaeological efforts of the late Sir William Ramsay, many of the critical views of the NT have been overthrown. Ramsay himself was converted from the critical view of liberal theology. He wrote:

“I began with a mind unfavorable to it [the Book of Acts], for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tubingen theory had at one time quite convinced me. It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[5]

I suggested to Hillard that he become better informed about assessing historical evidence. His retort was (in #21): “It would seem to me that you have a lot of modern day opinions and not much more, I for one believe that Jesus lived, but again that’s only my opinion (and incidentally my hope)”. I came back with: “You don’t seem to care about the standards by which one judges whether a document is historical or not. Could it be that you are establishing your own “modern day opinions” for this topic?” (#22)

Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, Germany, Dr. Martin Hengel wrote:

Ought we not rather to reckon that in the early period of the Gospel tradition, the roughly forty years up to the composition of the Gospel of Mark, the weight of the authority of the eyewitnesses was still very tangible and that oral traditions initially predominated, i.e. that in this stratum of the tradition we come very close to the remains of the preaching of Jesus himself? [6]


[1] Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology. New York: Harper and Row, 1940, pp. 288f, in Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Revised and Expanded). Chicago: Moody Press, 1968, 1986, p. 405; also in Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter. Eastbourne, Sussex, England: Kingsway Publications, 1977, p. 48.

[2] Suggested by John Warwick Montgomery, The Law Above the Law. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1975, p. 88.

[3] A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963, p. 189, in Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, 1979, p. 55.

[4] G. A. Williamson, The World of Josephus. London: Secker & Warburg, 1964, p. 290, in Geisler, Christian Apologetics, p. 326.

[5] William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896, p. 8, in Geisler, Christian Apologetics, p. 326.

[6] Martin Hengel 2000. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Harrisburgh, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, p. 173.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 1 September 2018

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