“If skeptics were willing to give the Gospels the same ‘benefit of the doubt’ they are willing to give other ancient documents, the Gospels would easily pass the test of authorship.”
– J. Warner Wallace
That is a pretty bold statement. Could the Bible actually be just as accurate as other literary works from antiquity? Is the Bible just as accurate as the writings of Plato, Homer, and even Caesar? There’s a way to find out.
We have set out to prove whether we can trust the Bible or not by using the same three tests all historians use for every discovered historical document. The first test that they use for The Bibliographical Test is The Time-Gap test.
What is Time Gap?
Time Gap refers to the span of time from when the original author wrote their original document (known as autographs) to when the earliest existing copy (known as manuscripts) was written. Time Gap helps us determine if the manuscripts we have, from which we base our modern Bibles, are historically accurate and truthfully representing what the original author intended to write. The reason why Time Gap is important is that the shorter the time-gap the more factual and accurate the document becomes.
When a copy of the original document is discovered it is important that we know how long the span of time is for that document. If there is a minimal time gap, then it ensures historians that the copy (manuscript) is trustworthy because of a couple different reasons:
- Other eyewitnesses (like bystanders and officials) are able to affirm or deny the historical accuracy of the document
- Contemporary critics (like religious and political leaders) are able to discredit and disprove the validity of the document
- The presence of legendary or mythological elements about the original events diminish because people who witnessed the actual events would be able to discredit the copy
What is the Time Gap for the New Testament?
Based on my research, the time gap for the New Testament is between 10 to 50 years. The entire New Testament was written within 70 years of the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (around AD 30); while most books were written within 30 years of the actual events they recorded.
This is extremely significant because this comparatively small time gap assures us today that the Bible we hold in our hands, read, study, and question is indeed historically accurate and represents what the original authors wrote. The key to uncovering the time-gap for the New Testament is to accurately date the original documents and compare them to our earliest copies that we have.
Time Gap Test: Acts & Beyond
The book of Acts is one of the most important books in the New Testament when it comes to the Time Gap test. Acts, written by a first-century doctor named Luke, was written in AD 62. The reason we know this is because of two reasons:
- Luke’s second letter to Theophilus (Acts 1:1) ends with its main characters still alive, the apostle Paul and James (Jesus’ half-brother). History shows us that Paul was martyred in AD 66 and James was martyred in AD 62.
- Acts never mentions the fall and destruction of the Temple which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Because of these two reasons, we can accurately date the book of Acts before these events took place. Luke’s second letter was written in AD 62, therefore his first letter, The Gospel of Luke, must have been written prior to Acts. Luke’s gospel must have been written in AD 60, because time had to have past for Luke to write his gospel and for Theophilus to have received it.
Time-Gap is important because the shorter the gap the more accurate the document.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark were written before Luke because according to Luke, he used Mark and Matthew as resources when he wrote his first letter (Luke. 1:1-4). Mark was written in the early AD 50s and Matthew was written later in the AD 50s because of the following reasons:
- Neither gospel mentions the destruction of the Temple (AD 70).
- Luke uses them as resources (Lk. 1:1-4). So it can’t be later than AD 60.
- Mark was written before Paul and Peter preached and were murdered in Rome (AD 68 and 64 respectively).
- Matthew was written while Paul and Peter were preaching in Rome, so it must have been before their martyrdoms (AD 68 and AD 64 respectively).
So we see that Acts, Luke, Matthew, and Mark were all written within 30-40 years of the actual events they witnessed. All of Paul’s letters and both of Peter’s letters must have been written before their deaths in AD 68 and AD 64 respectively, so the majority of the New Testament was written within 30 years of the actual events Paul records. This leaves us with the writings of John (the Gospel of John, 1-3 John, and Revelation).
The Gospel of John and 1-3 John all were written by AD 90 because:
- Polycarp and Papius (early church fathers writing in the early second century) both quoted John’s works (including Revelation) in AD 100.
- John began writing after the fall of the Temple in AD 70, because he makes no mention of the Sadducees, a Jewish religious group that disbanded after the Temple was destroyed.
- John makes reference to Peter’s martyrdom (AD 64-66) in John 21:18.
- John calls the Sea of Galilee by its later name, the Sea of Tiberius (Jn. 6:1), which was only used near the end of the first century.
Finally, the book of Revelation was written in AD 95/96 because Iraneus (another early church father) says that Revelation came toward the end of the reign of Domitian (Against Heresies 5.30.3), which ended in AD 96.
We see that the original documents were written very close to the actual events (making them trustworthy), but we need to compare them to the earliest copies we have in order to complete the Time Gap test.
The New Testament is the best historically established book from antiquity
The New Testament stands alone as the most historically reliable document we have to date. The reason why we can say this is because of the comparably minute amount of time that has passed between when the authors were writing their original works (between AD 40 – AD 96) and the current early copies we have today.
In their book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek examine the differences between the time gaps of the New Testament compared to other historically accepted documents from antiquity.
As you can see, clearly the New Testament (red line) is the best historically established and supported book from the ancient world. Recent data confirms that the New Testament has a time gap that is less than 50 years between the original document and the earliest extant copy we have today. The New Testament is by far the most reliable document from antiquity we have today. In fact, the only piece of literature from antiquity that remotely comes close to the New Testament’s Time Gap is Homer’s Iliad coming in with a time gap of 350-400 years. Most other classical works range around 1000 years of time between the original and their first copy.
Dr. Norman Geisler says that “most scholars (conservative or critical) believe the New Testament was completed by 100 AD.” So if the New Testament was completed by AD 100 how close are the manuscripts that we have to that time?
I want to highlight three different discoveries that help us see why a Time Gap of less than 50 years is reasonable and accurate.
(John Ryland Fragment)
- Can We Trust the New Testament based on the Time-Gap Test? The first discovered manuscript that we have is called the Chester Beatty Papyri. It is dated at AD 150 giving us a time gap for the New Testament of just 90 years. Compare that with most classical Greek works, that are rarely disputed, the New Testament is the most reliable text that modern society has to date.
- The second discovered manuscript that we have is called the John Ryland Papyrus which is dated between AD 100-150. This collection, found in Egypt, contains most of Paul’s letters, the Gospels, and the book of Acts, which is only eight books shy of completing the entire collection of the 27 New Testament books.
Within this collection there is a fragment of John’s Gospel (just five verses) which makes this discovery the earliest undisputed manuscript of the New Testament. “This would leave less than a 50 year gap to the original which most scholars believe was written by 90 AD.”(emphasis added) Read the rest here.
- The third discovered manuscript that we have is a recently discovered first-century fragmented manuscript of Mark’s Gospel which Daniel Wallace writes about stating, “that a world-class paleographer [has] dated this manuscript and that he was pretty darn sure that it belonged to the first century.”1 If this manuscript does indeed belong to the first century then it would make it an even earlier manuscript then the John Ryland Fragment and thus closing the time gap even further.
Based on the extremely small gap of time between when the original documents were being written (between AD 40 – 96) and the earliest surviving undisputed manuscript (John Ryland Papyrus) we can safety and emphatically say that we can trust the New Testament documents that we have today!
All of this historically confirmed evidence leads us to the same conclusion as John Warwick Montgomery when he said that to be skeptical of the New Testament “is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no document of the ancient period [is] as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”2 So we can safely say beyond a reasonable doubt that most, if not all, of the New Testament documents were written very closely to the actual events they describe, and that we have extremely early copies (manuscripts) of those original documents, making them trustworthy.
We can safety and emphatically say that we can trust the N.T.
As we continue to test the historicity of the Bible and therefore prove whether it is something to be trusted, we will continue to look at each category for the Bibliographical, Internal, and External Tests in forthcoming posts. So stay tuned for more content of #TheBibleSeries.
The above content is largely based on the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Dr. Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek. This book is a must read for anyone interested in finding out more facts and ideas that help us (and me personally) trust the Bible. You can purchase I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist and access more content by Dr. Geisler on his website.
- First Century Fragment of Mark’s Gospel Found!? by Daniel Wallace, March, 2012
- History and Christianity by John Warwick Montgomery
Defending Your Faith by Dr. Mark Bird
The Reason for God by Tim Keller
Letters From A Skeptic by Dr. Greg Boyd
Biblical Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secret by Gordon Govier
First Century Fragment of Mark’s Gospel Found!? by Daniel Wallace
John Ryland Fragment at the University of Manchester