F. F. Bruce, “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?”

I believe I read recently where Timothy Keller said that this book was important in his faith journey, and so I read it. Whatever prompted me, I’m glad I did.

The author is an English Anglican, and the book was was first published in 1943, so it’s hard to imagine that C.S. Lewis would not have read it. The book is short, with only 120 pages and no index. There’s a recent edition in which the foreword is written by N.T. Wright, which I would have liked to have read.

This is a wonderful book, and I’m thinking seriously of buying it. As the title indicates, it marshals the evidence for the New Testament’s reliability, and it does so powerfully. For the balance of this post, I’ll go through the ten chapters of the book, the names of which describe each’s scope, and quote some of the key passages.


Chapter I (“Does It Matter?”) is short and profound. If you’d like to read it, the whole book seems to be online here [link: http://studenthome.nku.edu/~csf/Articles/NTDocs.htm]. Obviously, it matters a great deal to every person whether the events described in the New Testament are true or not.

At the beginning of chapter II (“The New Testament Documents: Their Date and Attestation”), the author says that the first five books of the New Testament — that is, the four gospels and Acts — “are historical in character, and are thus of more immediate concern for our present study” (10). He concludes the chapter this way (19-20, footnote omitted and italics in original):

The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.

To sum up, we may quote the verdict of the late Sir Frederic Kenyon, a scholar whose authority to make pronouncements on ancient MSS was second to none: 

‘The interval then between the data of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small 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.’ 

From Bruce’s discussion in chapter III of “The Canon of the New Testament” (26):

Indeed, so much did they [that is, the leaders of the early Church] make the Septuagint their own that, although it was originally a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for Greek-speaking Jews before the time of Christ, the Jews left the Septuagint to the Christians, and a fresh Greek version of the Old Testament was made for Greek-speaking Jews.

Near the end of chapter III, the author writes (27, footnote omitted):

… [F]or a practical demonstration that the Church made the right choice one need only compare the books of our New Testament with the various early documents collected by M. R. James in his Apocryphal New Testament (1924), or even with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, to realise the superiority of our New Testament books to these others.

Side note: In my post on this blogsite about the book of Hebrews (see here), I suggest that it would be valuable to have an epistle from Barbabus, so I was interested to learn (22) in this chapter that there is such a (noncanonical) work.

Chapter IV discusses “The Gospels.” I liked this point from the discussion there of source criticism (30):

But provided that we bear in mind the limitations of this kind of literary criticism, there is considerable value in an inquiry into the sources of our Gospels. If the dates suggested for their composition in an earlier chapter are anything like correct, then no very long space of time separated the recording of the evangelic events from the events themselves. If, however, it can be shown with reasonable probability that these records themselves depend in whole or in part on still earlier documents then the case for the trustworthiness of the gospel narrative is all the stronger.

His excellent discussion of the synoptic gospels’ sources (44-46) concludes:

We have then in the Synoptic Gospels, the latest of which was complete between forty and fifty years after the death of Christ, material which took shape at a still earlier time, some of it even before His death, and which, besides being for the most part firsthand evidence, was transmitted along independent and trustworthy lines. The Gospels in which this material is embodied agree in their presentation of the basic facts of the Christian faith–a threefold cord not quickly broken.

He discusses John’s gospel separately. I’ll note here in passing that he likes Dorothy Sayers (49). He also notes that some believe that I John was a cover letter for John’s gospel (50); Bruce, by the way, believes that author was the apostle, not “John the elder” (53-54). And he explains the apparent discrepancy in Passion Week chronologies between the synoptic gospels and John by noting (56-57):

There is considerable ground for believing that certain religious groups (including our Lord and His disciples) followed a different calendar from that by which the chief priests regulated the temple services. While the chief priests and those who followed their reckoning ate the Passover on Friday evening, when Jesus was already dead (Jn. xviii. 28, xix. 14), He and His disciples appear to have eaten it earlier in the week.

At the beginning of chapter V (“The Gospel Miracles”), Bruce writes (62):

In literature there are many different kinds of miracle stories; but the Gospels do not ask us to believe that Jesus made the sun travel from west to east one day, or anything like that; they do not even attribute to Him such monstrosities as we find in the apocryphal Gospels of the second century. In general, they are ‘in character’–that is to say, they are the kind of works that might be expected from such a Person as the Gospels represent Jesus to be. As we have seen, not even in the earliest Gospel strata can we find a non-supernatural Jesus, and we need not be surprised if supernatural works are attributed to Him. 

After briefly reviewing the various alternative explanations of the empty grave, Bruce concludes (65):

(The idea that they deliberately invented the tale is very properly discountenanced as a moral and psychological impossibility.) But the one interpretation which best accounts for all the data, as well as for the abiding sequel, is that Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead was a real and objective event.

A few pages later, he writes (65):

As regards details of time and place, some well-known difficulties arise when we compare the various accounts of resurrection appearances. … But when we have taken note of the difficulty of harmonizing all the accounts we are confronted with a hard core of historical fact: (a) the tomb was really empty; (b) the Lord appeared to various individuals and groups of disciples both in Judaea and in Galilee; (c) the Jewish authorities could not disprove the disciples’ claim that He had risen from the dead.

Still later in the chapter, he writes (68, footnotes omitted):

If we do proceed to ask what the independent non-Christian evidence for the Gospel miracles is, we shall find that early non-Christian writers who do refer to Jesus at any length do not dispute that He performed miracles. Josephus, as we shall see, calls Him a wonder-worker; later Jewish references in the rabbinical writings, as we shall also see, attribute His miracles to sorcery, but do not deny them, just as some in the days of His flesh attributed His powers to demon possession. Sorcery is also the explanation given by Celsus, the philosophic critic of Christianity in the second century. The early apostles referred to His miracles as facts which their audiences were as well acquainted with as they themselves were; similarly, the early apologists refer to them as events beyond dispute by the opponents of Christianity.

In chapter VI (“The Importance of Paul’s Evidence”), the author notes (77):

It is reasonable to believe that the evidence which convinced such a man of the out and out wrongness of his former course, and led him so decisively to abandon previously cherished beliefs for a movement which he had so vigorously opposed, must have been of a singularly impressive quality. The conversion of Paul has for long been regarded as a weighty evidence for the truth of Christianity. Many have endorsed the conclusion of the eighteenth century statesman George, Lord Lyttelton, that ‘the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation’. [There follows a footnote containing an adulatory quote by Samuel Johnson on Lyttelton’s Observations on the Conversion of St. Paul.]

By the way, in an earlier chapter, Bruce notes (28) that Paul is described in one ancient source this way: “‘a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, full of grace, for at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel’.”

In the penultimate paragraph of chapter VI, Bruce writes:

Even where [Paul] does not quote the actual sayings of Jesus, he shows throughout his works how well acquainted he was with them. In particular, we ought to compare the ethical section of the Epistle to the Romans (xii. 1 to xv. 7), where Paul summarizes the practical implications of the gospel for the lives of believers, with the Sermon on the Mount, to see how thoroughly imbued the apostle was with the teaching of his Master. Besides, there and elsewhere Paul’s chief argument in his ethical instruction is the example of Christ Himself. And the character of Christ as understood by Paul is in perfect agreement with His character as portrayed in the Gospels. When Paul speaks of ‘the meekness and gentleness of Christ’ (2Cor. x. I), we remember our Lord’s own words, ‘I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Mt. xi. 29). The self-denying Christ of the Gospels is the one of whom Paul says, ‘Even Christ pleased not himself’ (Rom. xv. 3); and just as the Christ of the Gospels called on His followers to deny themselves (Mk. viii. 34), so the apostle insists that, after the example of Christ Himself, it is our Christian duty ‘to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves’ (Rom. xv. I). He who said: ‘I am among you as the servant (Lk. xxii. 27), and performed the menial task of washing His disciples’ feet (Jn. xiii. 4 ff.)’ is He who, according to Paul, ‘took the form of a slave’ (Phil. 11. 7). In a word, when Paul wishes to commend to his readers all those moral graces which adorn the Christ of the Gospels he does so in language like this: ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. xiii. 14).

Of “The Writings of Luke” (chapter VII), Bruce writes (90):

Now, all these evidences of accuracy are not accidental. A man whose accuracy can be demonstrated in matters where we are able to test it is likely to be accurate even where the means for testing him are not available. Accuracy is a habit of mind, and we know from happy (or unhappy) experience that some people are habitually accurate just as others can be depended upon to be inaccurate. Luke’s record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy.

He concludes the chapter this way (91-92):

The historical trustworthiness of Luke has indeed been acknowledged by many biblical critics whose standpoint has been definitely liberal. And it is a conclusion of high importance for those who consider the New Testament from the angle of the historian. For the writings of Luke cover the period of our Lord’s life and death, and the first thirty years of the Christian Church, including the years in which Paul’s greatest missionary work was accomplished and the majority of his extant letters were written. The two parts of Luke’s history really bind the New Testament together, his Gospel dealing with the same events as the other Gospels, and his Acts providing the historical background to the Epistles of Paul. The picture which Luke gives us of the rise of Christianity is generally consonant with the witness of the other three Gospels and of Paul’s letters. And he puts this picture in the frame of contemporary history in a way which would inevitably invite exposure if his work were that of a romancer, but which in fact provides a test and vindication on historical grounds of the trustworthiness of his own writings, and with them of at least the main outline of the origins of Christianity presented to us in the New Testament as a whole.

Chapter VIII (“More Archaeological Evidence”) is very good, focusing especially on “inscriptions and papyri” (93).

In his discussion of Talmudic references in chapter IX (“The Evidence of Early Jewish Writings”), Bruce writes (101, footnote omitted):

According to the earlier Rabbis whose opinions are recorded in these writings, Jesus of Nazareth was a transgressor in Israel, who practiced magic, scorned the words of the wise, led the people astray, and said he had lot come to destroy the law but to add to it. He was hanged on Passover Eve for heresy and misleading the people. His disciples, of whom five are named, healed the sick in his name. 

It is clear that this is just such a portrayal of our Lord we might expect from those elements in the Pharisaic party which were opposed to Him. …

Most of this chapter, however, is devoted to Josephus.

Here is the book’s concluding paragraph (119-20, in chapter X, “The Evidence of Early Gentile Writers”):

The earliest propagators of Christianity welcomed the fullest examination of the credentials of their message. The events which they proclaimed were, as Paul said to King Agrippa, not done in a corner, and were well able to bear all the light that could be thrown on them. The spirit of these early Christians ought to animate their modern descendants. For by an acquaintance with the relevant evidence they will not only be able to give to everyone who asks them a reason for the hope that is in them, but they themselves, like Theophilus, will thus know more accurately how secure is the basis of the faith which they have been taught.