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New Testament Evidence |
The skeptics sought to destroy John

New Testament Evidence is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 31, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Modern finds made the New Testament the most reliable of the ancient classics

New Testament Evidence - The skeptics sought to destroy John’s Gospel, but textual discoveries badly let them down

New Testament Evidence - The skeptics sought to destroy John’s Gospel, but textual discoveries badly let them down
This papyrus fragment bearing a section of chapter 18 of John’s Gospel has been accurately dated to the first half of the second century or possibly even the late first century–very soon after the evangelist is thought to have composed it. It is held by the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England.

In the year 1826, when Ferdinand Christian Baur became a professor of theology at his old alma mater, Germany’s 350-year-old Tübingen University, the thirty-four-year-old academic launched a war on the historical credibility of the New Testament in general, and on the Gospel of John in particular. It was a concerted assault that rapidly gained the support of nearly all of Germany’s nineteenth-century “modern scholars.”

Seventy years later, the most respected biblical historian of the age, who had once been an ardent disciple of Baur, formally announced that the war was over, and that the “school of Baur,” as it had come to be called, had lost. The attack on the New Testament had failed, he said, and in the four decades that followed, one archaeological and textual discovery after another confirmed the defeat.

But the war was not over. In the twentieth century’s last half, scholars yet more modern resumed the assault, strongly supported, if not by the evidence, at least by the news and television media.

Baur’s mode of attack was to apply the philosophical method of another Tübingen graduate, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to Christian origins. According to Hegel, truth is not something that exists in a single time and place, but rather something that emerges from an evolving pattern of human conflict. Controversies began with some thesis that is challenged by an antithesis, finally resolving in the emergence of a synthesis. The entire New Testament, said Baur, cannot be understood as a simple record of things that actually occurred, but rather as a conflict between the forces that supported Peter (thesis) and those that supported Paul (antithesis), resolved finally by the rise of Catholicism (synthesis).

The New Testament books had been written many years after the events they purported to describe, Baur said, and always to espouse either Peter’s version of Christianity or Paul’s. On this ground, he assigned new dates to their composition. The synoptic Gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–had been written between a.d. 100 and 150, and therefore could not possibly represent a reliable record of things that happened perhaps a hundred or more years before. Of the Pauline epistles, only Romans, the two to Corinth, and Galatians could be accepted as written by Paul, because they showed evidence of conflict with Peter. The First Epistle of Peter was too much like Paul’s to be genuine. Acts must go, because it represents Paul as being on friendly terms with Peter. Finally, least reliable of all was John. It was written, asserted Baur, sometime between a.d. 150 and 200.

The attack struck the Christians at a vulnerable point. Was this really true? Had the Bible been proved wrong? To peoples for whom the Bible, generation after generation, had provided the whole moral, spiritual, and philosophical rationale for everything that mattered in life, this was a devastating blow.

The “Bible,” to English-speaking Protestants, whether American or British, meant the Authorized or “King James” Version, produced at the directive of James I, the first Stuart king of England, early in the seventeenth century. But the Greek texts from which it was translated went back only to the twelfth century. The Martin Luther Version, similarly cherished by German-speaking Protestants, suffered the same vulnerability. The Douay-Rheims Version, used by English speaking Catholics, had better credentials, having been translated from St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin. Of them all, however, Baur’s disciples could ask: Accounts written a century or more after the event? Translated often from texts dated a thousand or more years after that? How could such things claim historical veracity?

The Christians did have a rejoinder. After all, they said, classical historians like Tacitus, Suetonius, and Herodotus were likewise translated from copies made eight hundred or more years after the originals. Why did this not challenge their credibility? Why just the Bible? But this response, as was so often to prove the case, received nothing like the public attention given the original criticism.

Most Christians simply refused to believe Baur’s contentions and ignored them. But some embraced them, particularly the intellectually enterprising of the rising generation, and these began the twentieth century with the seeds of biblical skepticism firmly sown. Those seeds would take root, strongly reinforced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Arising alongside Baur’s claims, Darwin’s theory further weakened the tradition, by demonstrating, or so it was claimed, that nature’s species came about, not through specific design, but through sheer happenstance.

Long before the nineteenth century closed, however, the school of Baur found itself faced with a formidable foe. A circle of British scholars, led by Joseph Barber Lightfoot, bishop of Durham,1 established that evidence for a century-long conflict between the disciples of Peter and Paul simply did not exist, and the content of the books themselves provided more than adequate rational grounds to accept the dates Christians had traditionally assigned to them, if not even earlier ones.

It remained then for Adolf von Harnack, once a Baur sympathizer, and described by The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as “probably the outstanding patristic scholar of his generation,” to pronounce the claims of the school of Baur as unfounded. In an unexpected public statement that shocked the school’s friends and foes, he declared in 1897: “In all main points, and in most details, the earliest literature of the church is, from a literary point of view, trustworthy and dependable. . . . The assumptions of Baur’s school, one can almost say, are now wholly abandoned.”

However, he conceded that great damage had been done: “There remains an indefinite lack of confidence in the validity of the early Christian literature, a method that clings to all sorts of small details, which it seeks to use as arguments against the clear and decisive evidence.”

Archaeology, meanwhile, was vindicating the Old Testament. At the turn of the twentieth century, skeptics could assure the public that writing did not exist in Moses’ day (some time between 1500 and 1200 b.c.); therefore, the first five books of the Pentateuch must represent mere mythology, handed down orally, including, of course, the Ten Commandments.

But with the 1900s, one find after another reduced the skeptical case itself to mythology. Excavations by the Americans at Nippur (1900), by the Germans at Ashur (1903—1914), and by the Americans and British at Ur (1918—1939) and at Kish (1922—1926) produced thousands of inscribed tablets ranging back to 2000 b.c. and beyond. Papyrus scrolls just as old were found in Egypt. All these clearly evidenced writing that predated Moses by as much as eight hundred years. Scores of other discoveries turned up examples of writing contemporary with Moses.

Much stronger validation was forthcoming for the New Testament. In 1844, a complete text of it had been found at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. Written on vellum and known as the Codex Sinaiticus, it was dated back to the fourth century a.d. when vellum, made from animal hide, began replacing papyrus, made from reed pulp, as the standard writing material. Nothing earlier than this was expected, because papyrus either dries out and flakes, or becomes damp and rots. Yet as the twentieth century unfolded, legible papyrus fragments were found in Egypt, where the dry climate prevented decomposition. Except for fragments, however, few of these were from New Testament writings.

Then, in 1931, came a bonanza.

Codices were discovered in Egypt with eleven Christian manuscripts, seven from the Old Testament; one a sermon by Melito, bishop of Sardis, written in the late 100s, and three from the New Testament, including parts or the whole of all the books. These were dated in the early 200s and included, of course, the Gospel of John. They were acquired by a New York-born mining engineer named Alfred Chester Beatty and are known as the Chester Beatty Papyri.2

A far more astonishing discovery had been made eleven years before the Chester Beatty find, but had not been recognized until the mid-1930s. At the turn of the twentieth century, two British papyrologists, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, discovered that a number of trash mounds in the Faiyum Oasis region southwest of Cairo, which the local farmers were using as a source of fertilizer, were largely composed of hundreds of papyrus rolls of great antiquity. In the ensuing years they brought them out and turned them over to the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, where scholars began to segregate and catalog them.

In 1935, one of those scholars, C. H. Roberts, produced a single fragment of papyrus which he definitively dated between the years a.d. 100 and 150. It was about the size of the palm of a man’s hand. On one side of it, he said, were the thirty-first, thirty-second, and thirty-third verses of the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, on the other the thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth verses of the same chapter.

The implications were momentous. It meant that the oldest extant fragment of the New Testament is from the Fourth Gospel. More important, it meant that early in the second century, that Gospel was circulating in the interior of Egypt, seven hundred miles away from Ephesus, where it had been written. From the standpoint of textual validity, the Fourth Gospel became the most authenticated book in the New Testament, and it was instantly evident that the book must have been written before the turn of the second century, possibly long before it. The school of Baur was very dead indeed.

But not the skepticism it had helped give rise to. Following the Second World War, another attack on the New Testament began, led off this time by Anglican Bishop Ernest William Barnes of Birmingham, whose book, The Rise of Christianity, confessed his rejection of most Christian doctrines and, of course, the historical reliability of all the Gospels, but especially John’s.

This drew a reply from one of the ablest scholars of the day, Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, who in about fifty pages of his book The Bible and Modern Scholarship took the bishop’s book to pieces point by point, all demonstrating that in essence it was a restatement of Baur, 120 years later.

Since the 1960s put virtually all traditional institutions under attack, it was almost obligatory that the Fourth Gospel be assailed again by biblical critics. No longer able, however, to portray it as an accretion of legend because of the disconcerting Rylands Fragment, its foes were driven to new innovations.

Attention was focused on its authorship. It was certainly not John the Apostle, most critics agreed, because he was a simple fisherman and probably couldn’t speak Greek, let alone write one of the most spiritually moving religious masterpieces in human history.

So there must have been another author. For years, Christians had speculated that a certain John the Elder, a disciple of John Zebedee, had in fact produced the gospel and the three epistles that accompanied it. Their third-person reference to the “beloved disciple” as the eyewitness authority for them, they said, was obviously a reference to John the Apostle, whose memories they record.

No, said the new critics, John Zebedee had no doubt been killed years before at the same time as his brother James, just as was recorded by the historian Papias, writing early in the second century. But Luke, replied the Christians, records the death of James (Acts 12:2). Why would he have not mentioned John if they had both been killed together? Perhaps he didn’t know about it, or perhaps it was an oversight, came the reply.

Moreover, said the critics, John Zebedee could not possibly have been the gospel’s “beloved disciple.” But then where, Christians asked, did John Zebedee go? If he isn’t the “beloved disciple,” then what happened to him? He appears repeatedly in the other three Gospels, but isn’t mentioned at all by name in the fourth.

The answer to this question never seemed to get made, because another, even tougher one kept coming up: If the “beloved disciple” wasn’t John, then who was he? Why do the other gospel writers take no notice of him?

“He may not have been an apostle,” replies author Greville Cooke in his book Who Wrote the Fourth Gospel?: A Short Summary of the Evidence, “but a young man with whom Jesus became deeply intimate, who resided in Jerusalem, occasionally joining Jesus and the Twelve in Galilee.” He was proposing, that is, the existence of an unobtrusive spiritual genius that the other gospel writers had neglected to mention, or failed to notice–though he was Jesus’ closest confidant, sat beside him at the Last Supper, was entrusted with the care of Jesus’ mother, and was, by reputation, destined to live forever. Many people found this difficult. Was it not easier, they asked, simply to believe the book was written by John Zebedee? No it was not, not in the increasingly skeptical 1960s anyway, when it was becoming difficult to believe anything.

Meanwhile, the attack of other modern scholars took a variety of directions. The gospel is heavily influenced by Hellenism, some said. No, said others, it’s decidedly Jewish, clearly aimed at a purely Jewish audience. No, still others replied, it’s actually anti-Semitic, continually complaining about “the Jews.” These felt the text should be rewritten to eliminate this taint.

Someone else must have written the prologue, said many critics. Someone else must have written the twenty-first chapter, which is an epilogue, said others. Someone else must have written the whole thing, said Rudolf Bultmann, another Tübingen man, born twenty-four years after Baur died, who revived the inclinations of his school minus its Hegelian methodology, and led the movement against the historical credibility of the Fourth Gospel in the twentieth century.

To Bultmann, the gospel was undoubtedly influenced by Gnosticism. Great credibility was by his time being conferred on the so-called Gnostic gospels; late second-century versions of Christ’s life rejected by the early Christians as too far removed from the events they described to be included in the New Testament.

Whatever their date of origin, these scholars replied, they had at least been produced late enough to escape the doctrinal biases of the earlier gospel writers. They could therefore be counted on to give a far more accurate description of what Jesus had actually taught, they argued, than the Gospels, particularly the Fourth. The Christians noted an irony here. Where in the nineteenth century the Fourth Gospel had lost credibility because it had been written so late, it now lost credibility because it had been written so early. Biblical criticism, in other words, had come the full circle.

But by then, something else was evident. “Modern scholars,” as the media reverently referred to them, inevitably seemed to begin with the assumption that the biblical accounts of Jesus could not possibly be historic. Their task, as they saw it, was always to answer the question: What did he actually do and say? Increasingly bizarre speculations followed. Their initial assumption, however, they rarely if ever questioned.

This is the end of the New Testament Evidence category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 31, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about New Testament Evidence from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at