Josh McDowell Answers Questions about the New Testament

Josh McDowell, a former skeptic, is an internationally known speaker and author defending the Christian faith. His books on Christianity have sold 10 million copies, including books on the historical evidence for the faith such as New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, More than a Carpenter, and The Da Vinci Code: A Quest for Answers. He has degrees from Wheaton College and Talbot School of Theology.

In The Da Vinci Code it’s unclear when the New Testament books were actually written.

McDowell: When it comes to dating the New Testament books (our primary source of information about Christ), there are differences between conservative and liberal scholars but only in terms of decades, not centuries. For example, the conservative dating for the Gospel of Mark is between A.D. 50-60, with more liberal scholars placing it around A.D. 70. This is remarkable, when you consider that Jesus died somewhere around the year A.D. 30; these are authentic eyewitness accounts. Generally speaking, Paul’s letters were written between A.D. 50-66, the gospels between A.D. 50-70, with John’s gospel being written sometime around A.D. 80-90. If you can believe it, we actually have a fragment of John’s gospel dated just after the end of the first century.

Do we have any of the original New Testament documents?

McDowell: If we did they would be beyond priceless. What we have is early manuscript copies of the originals.

Then how do we know for sure what was in the original documents?

McDowell: To discover the accuracy of copying for the New Testament material and see whether or not it has been “changed,” you have to look at two factors: One, the number of manuscripts existing today; and two, the time period between the original document and the earliest manuscripts still in existence today. The more manuscripts we have and the closer the manuscripts are to the original, the more we are able to determine where copyist errors happened and which copies reflect the original.

For example, the book Natural History, written by Pliny Secundus, has 7 manuscript copies with a 750-year gap between the earliest copy and the original text. The number two book in all of history in manuscript authority is The Iliad, written by Homer, which has 643 copies with a 400-year gap. 

Now this is a little startling: the New Testament has currently 24,970 manuscript copies, completely towering over all other works of antiquity. In addition, we have one fragment of the New Testament (NT) with only a 50-year gap from the original, whole books with only a 100-year gap, and the whole NT with only a 225-250-year gap. I don’t think there is any question from all of these early copies that we know exactly what the original documents said.

Is it true that the New Testament was decided upon at the council of Nicea (A.D. 325)?

McDowell: It was actually later, at the synod of Hippo in A.D. 393, quite a few years after the death of Constantine, when the church listed the 27 confirmed books of the New Testament. But, of course, both dates are misleading.

Why are they misleading?

McDowell: Because the church had recognized these books as the definitive New Testament nearly 200 years before Nicea. It was only due to the challenge of missions, fraud and heresy that the church leadership felt the need to clearly articulate the list. 

How early was there a defined New Testament?

McDowell: It’s hard to pin down an exact date, especially because the letters circulated in different geographic areas. We know from writings within the first century that many of the books of the New Testament were already regarded as scripture by that point.

The early church father Iraneus was brought up in Asia Minor studying at the feet of Polycarp and Polycarp was a student of the apostle John. In the writings of Iraneus, A.D. 180, he attests the canonical recognition of the fourfold Gospel and Acts, of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, of 1 Peter and 1 John and of the Revelation–that’s most of our New Testament. 

There is considerable evidence such as this, that by A.D. 150 at the latest, the church recognized a New Testament pretty close to the one we have today. 

Assuming you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, what role did Constantine play in deciding the canon?

McDowell: Hah, yes I have. Well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to hand it in as a history or religion paper, but it’s a fictional book so obviously the author took liberties. Constantine had nothing to do with deciding on the books of the New Testament. He convened the council to provide spiritual unity and a clear church position on an ongoing debate causing division within the newly christianized Roman Empire. 

Was the debate over the deity of Christ?

McDowell: Yes and no. It did relate to the deity of Christ but the issue was whether Jesus’ status was lesser than the Father—was he coeternal? No one believed or debated if he was merely a man or prophet.

The Da Vinci Code states that it was a pretty close vote.

McDowell: According to recent research done by historian Dr. Paul Maier at Western Michigan University, “the vote was 300 to 2.” So, no, I wouldn’t say it was very close, and again the issue was simply whether Jesus was coeternal with God the Father.

The Da Vinci Code mentions Constantine removed 80 other gospels because they did not portray Christ as deity. 

McDowell: There are about 60 other documents, many of them not gospels, the majority of which can be traced to the cult of Gnosticism. These documents were almost all written well into the second century bearing the pseudonyms of the apostles. The earliest of these “alternative gospels” are actually exaggerative in their portrayal of Christ’s deity. If you go back and read the historic literature from the first and second century you’ll see that the Christian community unanimously condemned this cult, their theology and their literature. And, again, of the 20 rulings made at Nicea, none of them dealt with the contents of the New Testament: either what went in to it or what was excluded.

The story behind your writing is that your research was an attempt to disprove Christianity. Would you like to comment?

McDowell: By comment, do you mean is it true? Yes, I suspected that at the heart of Christianity was myth not fact. Hundreds of hours into my research I became convinced that the events recorded in the gospels happened just as they are written, and that Jesus was in fact the Messiah.

All of us struggle with faith. What made you so certain?

McDowell: Biblical prophecy had an enormous role. The Old Testament was written between B.C. 1,400 and B.C. 400. As you probably know a great deal of the Old Testament speaks of a coming messiah. The question, of course, is whether Jesus is that person. Well, the Old Testament contains nearly 300 descriptive, prophetic references to this coming messiah written hundreds of years before Jesus was even born. Let me give you simply a few of them:

In the book of Micah, written approximately B.C. 750, it states: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” 

In the book of Isaiah, written approximately B.C. 600, it predicts, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” Immanuel means “God with us.”

And in Isaiah it also makes this prediction concerning the messiah’s death, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  

So how many people in human history who could remotely qualify for the title “Messiah” were born in Bethlehem, of a virgin and pierced for our transgressions? Do you see what I mean? The more I researched the deeper it went.

Any other thoughts for those hashing through the issues raised by The Da Vinci Code?

McDowell: The truth is our friend. True historical data holds no skeletons for belief. In my case it led to faith. But you want to look for answers in history not fiction.

Copyright © 2006 Campus Crusade for Christ. Originally published by CruPress.