The Gospels read like unembellished eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life (per C.S. Lewis and Richard Bauckham, among others), and I’ve devoted other posts to the historicity of, and Luke’s reason for writing, Acts (see here and here). But what about the various New Testament epistles?
[Footnote: The remaining New Testament book, Revelation, is also an epistle, albeit one with a rather different purpose, namely communicating John’s vision of the End Times. There’s some plausibility, I suppose, to a greater likelihood here — who could contradict him, and why bother? — that an unhinged or score-settling wannabe prophet would write something like this. But, as with the (other) epistles, it’s not immediately clear what motive there would have been for writing falsely, and one supposes that no believing Jew would lightly lie about a vision from God.]
Note at the outset that the epistles are a different genre than historical narratives like the Gospels or Acts, so determining their truth is different. Historical narratives are said to be true if they conform to what actually happened; the religious messages of the epistles are true if they accurately tell us what God wants from us — hard for us to know — though the authors’ other claims (his biographical details, for example, or the presence of other Christians named in the opening or closing) might be evaluated more straightforwardly.
What would an archaeologist think if he just stumbled on a bunch of letters like these — that is, letters apparently written by early Christian leaders to other Christians, particularly Christian congregants?
The epistles are certainly evidence, if any were needed, that those early churches existed. And, whatever their explicit message, their implicit subtext — of a belief by the letters’ authors and their recipients in Christianity — is hard to question. What’s more, the writers of the epistles were certainly going to a lot of trouble and taking a lot of risks to set up churches and spread the Word. (On this point, see another post on this blogsite, “An Obvious Difference.”)
A point to be made here is the frequently greater reliability provided by the indirectness of the evidence found in ancient texts (“implicity”). That point can be illustrated this way: Suppose a historian is trying to decide if a particular fruit was available in first-century Palestine. Now, which is more reliable evidence: the governor’s assertion in a report to Rome that such fruit is available, or a used shopping list from that era that includes that fruit among the items listed and checked off? One can think of reasons why the governor might want to stretch the truth, but not an everyday shopper. Thus, for example, a statement by a church father that there was a congregation of believers in a particular city may be less persuasive than correspondence found that presupposes that.
Note, in this regard, that in general the epistles are less about straightforward evangelism — persuading people that Jesus was the Son of God — than about how to behave the way He wants us to. It is implicit and understood that of course the congregants want to do so because that’s who He is. It is also interesting that Jesus is almost never directly quoted; His basic teachings are implicit in the letters’ text. Somehow the authors of the letters, and their recipients, had come to accept the basic teachings of Jesus Christ. Often there is no instruction in the basics by these letter writers. Now, no doubt this is because the bedrock faith of the recipients could be safely assumed, but the existence of these letters evinces the existence of many people who found belief reasonable.
Jesus was clearly seen as the real deal. Even if one thinks for one reason or another that one or more of the letters is incorrect in what it says, there is no reason to suppose that the authors and recipients were insincere. The fact that these letters were written suggests that the guidance they provided was sought or at the very least that the authors thought it might be accepted. And that in turn suggests that not only their credentials but also the underlying faith they were spreading was considered plausible. The churches were there. And starting churches — who (especially among Jews) did that, and why do it unless you believed Jesus was who He said He was and had given the Great Commission? And, having begun a church, why mislead the congregants? To the contrary: If these men each believed in the divinity of Jesus, they would not be very unlikely to misrepresent what His teachings were (incidentally, this is relevant to the point made earlier about how infrequently Jesus was quoted, as discussed here).
And, finally, why forge these letters? It would be rather like forging my hypothetical market shopping list. Perhaps one particular letter might be forged or tampered with — to persuade someone that Peter believed this rather than that, for example — but a whole bunch of letters from a variety of authors? It would have been a very peculiar exercise.
[More along these lines here, another blogpost on this website.]
Indeed, the fact that there are a series of letters, from a variety of authors, is generally significant.
And I’ll note the reliability of the authors (putting aside the anonymous Hebrews, of course): Paul from time to time recites his own credentials and they don’t seem disputed; James was an early church leader and, along with Jude, a brother of Jesus’; Peter was not only a church leader but the disciple apparently closest to Jesus, and John was likewise a close disciple and important leader. If they believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, then it’s fair to suppose that maybe we should, too. The letters show that they did believe, and there’s is plenty of other evidence that they were in a good position to know whether belief was reasonable. Why would Paul switch sides, knowing as he must have all the arguments against the divinity of Jesus (see this post on “Paul’s Special Credibility”)? Why would James and Jude, who knew Jesus well and rejected His ministry, have become believers after the Resurrection? And Peter, who was with Jesus during His whole ministry, and John, who was with Him to the bitter end — why would they devote their lives to a lie?
I suppose the remaining question is: Is the reliability of the letters’ specific demands for this or that behavior not just accurate in its description of what God wants but is also that special kind of truth we label Scripture? Well, the authorial authority and the fact that the message is consistent with other Scripture is certainly evidence of that, whether or not it is considered proof. It is true that the epistles’ context is in some respects more practical than other genres — that is, sometimes giving quasi-administrative guidance on running a church — but, when you think about it, why should the practical need for a letter make it less likely that a message is God-breathed?
P.S. Here’s a random thought: While I have no intention to question the reliability of the content of any of the epistles, if I had to rank them I would put Peter’s first letter at the top of the list, because it seems to me that, among all the epistle writers, he had the most direct contact with Jesus during His ministry, and his first letter’s authenticity is apparently less disputed than his second letter’s.