top of page

Book Review: The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

By F.F. Bruce, 6th edition, 1981, with a foreword by N. T. Wright | Reviewed by Lloyd Southwick

The reliability of the New Testament (NT) documents is crucial to Christianity. The Christian faith is not only about Christ’s teaching, but also about his Person. The New Testament is a collection of documents that tell of the Eternal coming into history for redemption.

In this book, originally published in 1943 as the author’s literary firstborn, Bruce (1910-1990) is mainly concerned with the first five books of the New Testament, but he gives detailed statements about each section of the NT. The original documents were all written within decades of the events, from about 48 ad for Galatians to ca. 90-100 ad for the Gospel of John. There are about 5000 Greek manuscripts of the NT known to exist. Two of the best of these date from about 350 ad. Fragments have been dated to about 130 ad. Each of the histories of the classical authors Herodotus and Thucydides are known from about ten useful manuscripts dating from 1300 years after the original compositions and these copies are considered reliable. Similar statements can be made about other classical authors, such as Caesar, Tacitus, and Livy. A classical scholar of note has stated that the time between the original composition of the documents of the NT and the extant manuscripts is negligible. We can consider that we have the NT documents in substantially the form in which they were written.

Bruce devotes a chapter on the development of the New Testament canon for the Church. In this chapter he emphasizes that the canon was decided (late fourth century) based on the books that the Church had already recognized as divinely inspired. The recognition came first, the listing of the canon afterwards.

Bruce spends about a third of his book on the Gospels. He gives much detail about their composition and the methods, especially form and source criticism, of determining this.

The second Gospel is Peter’s preaching translated by Mark from the Aramaic into Greek. Mark is the Gospel story as it was told in the earliest days of the church, but likely includes some of Mark’s own reminiscences. This Gospel related more about what Jesus did than what he said. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have much, often almost verbatim, of Mark in them. In addition they each have common material, mostly of Jesus’ sayings, which may have come from a sayings document that scholars have labeled Q. Besides Q other sources are likely, since Luke 1.1 mentions many who had written histories of the Gospel story. Many of the sayings of Jesus in Matthew and Luke have poetical features, and it seems that he, like the prophets of old, uttered his teaching poetically for memory’s sake. In addition, both Matthew and Luke have their own unique material. The written sources of the Synoptic Gospels (Mathew, Mark, and Luke) are no later than ca. ad 60; some may date from the time our Lord was in Palestine. That is, they are from the time when eye (and ear) witnesses were still present, and thus their reliability is enhanced.

The Gospel of John is the only Gospel that claims to be written by an eyewitness. The author does not name himself in his Gospel, but the evidence in this Gospel and in other books of the NT is almost overwhelmingly in support of the follower of Jesus who in the Gospel is called the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the disciple John. The Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.), who lived and were martyred in the 2nd century, knew of the 4th Gospel. Other 2nd century authors, e. g. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian of Carthage, attest to the general belief that the Apostle John was its author. The great scholar of the NT, Archbishop William Temple, notes that the mind of Jesus is more clearly revealed here than in the Synoptics. Even so, John faithfully preserves the heart of the original apostolic preaching. Although all the Gospels tell us of John’s baptism of Jesus, there is some (or stronger) indication in the 4th Gospel that Jesus had an early southern ministry during the time John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing, before Christ began his Galilean ministry with which the other Gospels initiate their accounts. John’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ ministry in Judea and Jerusalem.

Paul’s letters are our earliest NT documents, dating from about ad 48 to ca. ad 60. The conversion and apostleship of Paul, the formerly formidable Pharisaic oppressor of early Christians, “was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.” As a Christian, Paul knew our Lord’s apostles, mentioning Peter and John by name. Paul knew Jesus’ teachings, which he quoted in several places in his letters (e.g. 1 Cor 9.14), and also summarized and paraphrased in a number of places, including Romans 12.1-15.7. The outline of the Gospel story in Paul’s letters is consistent with that in the Gospels and other parts of the NT.

Bruce devotes one chapter on the historical reliability of Luke in his Gospel and Acts. In detail Luke’s careful attention to historical setting is remarkable.

Bruce also takes some time with early Jewish writers, especially Josephus (37-100 ad). The Gospel accounts are generally consistent with Josephus’ remarks about John the Baptist and about Jesus, his brother James, and Jesus’ disciples.

Gentile writers of the 1st and 2nd centuries also refer to Jesus and his followers. Tacitus (ca. 56-120 ad), the Roman historian of note, refers to the great fire of Rome in ad 64 during Nero’s reign and the blame he laid upon the Christians of the city. Suetonius in ca. 120 ad mentions the expulsion of Jews from Rome because of quarrelling over one called Chrestus during the reign (41-54 ad) of Claudius, consistent with Acts 18.1-2. And in ad 112 Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, complained to Emperor Trajan of the trouble he was having with the many Christians in his province, for they were causing numerous problems. These gentile references are in line with our NT documents.

Bruce admits that for many the miracle stories in the Gospels form the main difficulty in accepting the NT documents as reliable. The author addresses himself to many of them— e.g., the wine at Cana, feeding the 5000, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and of Lazarus, the empty tomb. The miracle stories must be viewed in light of Jesus himself. These stories are “in character,” to be expected from such a Person that the Gospels represent Jesus to be. If one does not accept the picture of Christ given to us by the Gospels as the divine Son of God come to earth as a real human, then the miracle stories are not believable. The Gospels do not present a non-supernatural Jesus. “If Christ is the power of God, then these stories, far from being an obstacle to belief, appear natural and reasonable; from Him who was the power of God incarnate, we naturally expect manifestations of divine power.” Bruce closes his chapter on Jesus’ miracles by quoting John 20.31: “these things were written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life in His name.”

N. T. Wright (b. 1948; McGill Univ., Univ. of Oxford; Dean of Lichfield Cathedral; Bishop of Durham; Univ. of St. Andrews) tells us at the beginning of his foreword that he was introduced in the early 1970's “to this kindly but formidable scholar when I was a nervous young graduate student.” Bruce began his career as a classicist but expanded on this foundation by becoming expert in Judaism and Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He wrote over 30 books and became known for his commentaries on Acts, Hebrews, and Galatians and for his book on Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. From 1959 to 1978 he was Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester. When his book on the reliability of the NT documents came out in 1943, in the wake of years of negative criticism he stood almost alone as one of his scholarly imminence willing to stand up for the truth of the New Testament and the Jesus for whom it speaks. Since Bruce’s day many books about Jesus and the Gospels have been published, but Bruce’s book forms an excellent foundation for further study. As Wright strongly assures us, it is far from out of date. And at the close of Wright’s foreword he also strongly assures us that, along with the New Testament documents, F. F. Bruce is most reliable.

64 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page