How do we know that we can trust the New Testament? Given how old it is, isn’t it possible that its been corrupted?
The argument that the New Testament has become hopelessly corrupted is based on a misunderstanding. People who use this argument mistakenly focus on the fact that 2,000 years have passed since the writing of the New Testament documents and therefore they cannot be trusted to give an accurate report of what happened. What people fail to realize is that the crucial time gap is not how long the evidence has existed, but rather how much time has elapsed between the events and the first record of them. As Dr. William Lane Craig has said, “Good evidence doesn’t become poor evidence just because of the passage of time. ” As long as the writers of the documents comprising the New Testament had the events they were recording in living memory, then it’s simply irrelevant how long ago those documents were written.
Fortunately the Gospels do not have a significant time gap by which the story could be distorted by legends. The first gospel written of the four canonical gospels is the Gospel of Mark. The most commonly accepted date for the writing of the Gospel of Mark is AD 70. Christians usually accept this dating because it seems close enough to the period in which Jesus lived for it to be considered reliable. After all, a time gap of 40 years is less than Vietnam Veterans have when they tell stories of the Vietnam War . I know a few Vietnam Veterans who have told me some rather vivid stories about their time in Vietnam. Their ability to remember and accurately report what they saw lends credence to the fact that Mark was able to remember and accurately record what he saw.
But I believe we have good reason for believing that Mark was written a lot earlier, probably sometime in the late 40s. To begin with, we already know that Luke was written by a traveling companion of Paul. This is because Luke writes part of his narrative in Acts in the first person plural thereby claiming that he was actually on the scene with Paul. Usually in historical research, when an author claims something, he is given the benefit of the doubt. Unless we can find good reason to believe that Luke was lying (and no reasons are forthcoming) we can take it at face value that he was there. This means that Acts had to be written during the lifetime of a person who was alive and old enough to travel with Paul during his ministry.
Secondly, consider Stephen. He was a very minor character in the book of Acts. The first time he is mentioned is in chapter 6 and then he gets killed in chapter 7. One would think that since Luke spent so much time explaining the details of Stephen’s death (he devotes all of chapter 7 to it) then he would also devote at least the same, if not more attention to the deaths of more major figures in the book of Acts, such as Peter, James, or Paul. Interestingly there is no mention in the book of Acts of any of these deaths. In fact James is seen in Jerusalem alive and well in chapter 21 with Paul and the Elders (not to mention Luke). Paul continues to be the focus of the narrative all the way to the very end of the book, with no mention of his death. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that if Acts were written after the deaths of Paul, James, or Peter then their deaths would have definitely been part of the narrative. Since they are not part of the narrative, we can conclude that Acts was written before they died. Now, here comes the kicker! Peter died in AD 67. Paul died in AD 65. James died in AD 62. And let us not forget that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 (another major event for which there is no mention in Acts). We can therefore conclude that Acts was written no later than AD 62.
This early date for the book of Acts is important because Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. This means that no matter how early we are able to plausibly date Acts, Luke had to have been written earlier. So if Acts were written in AD 61 (missing the death of James by a year!) then Luke was probably written a few years before that, perhaps in AD 55.
But let’s not forget that Luke is one of the Synoptic Gospels. According to the widely accepted theory of Markan Priority , Mark had to have been written before Luke. This is evident from the fact that 88% of the Gospel of Mark has apparently been copied into the Gospel of Luke. So, since Luke was probably written in AD 55, then Mark was written before that. Since Mark didn’t have the ability to email a copy of his book to everyone as soon as he was finished, we need to allow for a few years for copies to be made and distributed before it eventually found its way on Luke’s writing desk. I think 5 years is a long enough for this to happen. Therefore, we can conclude that Mark was written sometime in the late 40s, early 50s.
So whether Mark was written in the early 70s as most liberal scholars claim or in the early 50s, in either case it was written within living memory of the events and therefore can be trusted as a reliable document.