In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone made the following claim: “Biblical scholars have identified many places in the New Testament where the text has been changed over the years. How can you trust what the Gospels say about Jesus if they’ve been altered like that?” How would you respond to such a statement? Here is a conversational example of how I recently replied:
“Well, sometimes in homicide cases, especially unsolved, ‘cold cases,’ a question arises about whether a piece of evidence presented to the jury today was actually a part of the crime scene 30 years ago, or was, perhaps, altered over the years. It has happened in some criminal cases, so I can understand the concern. Skeptics have similar concerns about the New Testament. How can we be sure the Gospels weren’t altered significantly over the years? How do we know the Gospels we have today are the same as the Gospels originally written by the eyewitnesses?
In my criminal cases, I typically evaluate the potential alteration of evidence over time by tracing the “chain of custody”. From the first officer who reported a particular piece of evidence, to the detectives who next handled it, to the criminalists who then examined it in the lab, to the detectives who eventually delivered it into the courtroom, I want to know what each and every one of them had to say about the evidence under question. Did they write about it? Did they take a picture of it? The “chain of custody” will help me determine if the evidence was altered over time.
In a similar way, there is a New Testament ‘chain of custody’ related to the transmission of the Gospels and letters of Paul. The Gospel of John, for example, can be traced from John to his three personal students (Ignatius, Polycarp and Papias) to their personal student (Irenaeus) to his personal student (Hippolytus). These men in the chain of custody wrote their own letters and documents describing what they had been taught by their predecessors. These letters survive to this day and allow us to evaluate whether or not the New Testament narratives have been changed over the years.
In a similar way, the content in the letters of Paul can be traced from his students, Linus and Clement, all the way to Tatian, as we examine the letters and writings of the teachers and their students through history, reading the manuscripts that still exist from each historical figure and examining them to see if the claims of Paul were altered over the years.
If you take the time to examine the New Testament ‘chain of custody,’ you’ll discover an important truth because the evidence is clear: the foundational claims related to Jesus have not changed at all from the first record to the last.”
This brief answer was modified from my interview with Bobby Conway. To learn more and watch many other short answers to difficult questions, please visit the One-Minute Apologist website.