External and Internal Evidence for the Preservation of the New Testament

What Every Muslim Needs to Know About How We Got the New Testament (Injeel), part 4

There is a game where you tell a story around a circle and see how much it has changed by the time it comes back around. This is often used as a metaphor for how the New Testament (NT) was changed since it was written.  As we have discussed, we can see the nugget of truth in this in the variants that occur due to scribal errors in the number of manuscripts that are available to us.

However, we can also see that the metaphor is a flawed one. We are not talking about one circle with a single point of failure where we are entirely dependent on each person in the circle. This article will explain how we have multiple instances of the circle through the various NT authors and each circle has multiple redundant people at each step.  The NT is more analogous to the same story being told in nearly a dozen circles where each telling has more than one audience. On top of that, the story is being told in a culture with a rich written history. The story is also not one made up on the spot, it is a life-altering story so deeply experienced that the first tellers are willing to be crucified, stabbed, boiled in oil, and turned in to a human torch to light up the garden of Nero himself.

On top of the actual texts that have been previously discussed, we also have the testimony of the Church Fathers. These are those that represent the first telling of the story. We do not have to wait until the story goes around the circle, we can listen on the contemporaries and the followers of the apostles directly.

The fragments of the NT brought us to the beginning of the 2nd century. Now we are going to zoom in much closer. By reviewing the church Fathers, we will see that there were exactly 4 gospels and that they were received as Scripture on par with Old Testament Scripture along with the writings of the apostle Paul. We will also see that the gospels, Acts, Revelations, and the writings of Paul were immediately received and formed into the core of the NT based on internal evidence and the witness of the earliest Christians.
 church fathers early quotes and citations

Internal evidence

All of the New Testament was written in the first century. Some scholars date them toward the middle and others toward the end.  Usually, the late dating of the gospel is based on knowledge and predictions around the destruction of the temple. i.e. Since some do not believe in the message of the New Testament, they do not believe Jesus could predict future events and so the gospels must have been written after AD 70 if they predict these events. This is unfortunate and ignores much of the evidence to the contrary. For example, there is evidence that the early Christians abandoned Jerusalem before AD 70 in response to their understanding of Jesus’ message.

There is internal reasons to date the book of Acts to AD 64 simply because of where it leaves off. If it was prepared as a legal defense of Paul and brought us to the point of his execution but does not record it. This puts Luke before AD 64, which pushes Mark before Luke. It is very problematic to bring the gospels into the late first century for internal reasons as well as external citations.

Jesus promised more revelation would come (John 16:12-25) and the New Testament is the fulfillment of that promise The message of Jesus is confirmed by his demonstrable power over sickness, nature, hunger, and eventually death. These are proofs that provide us confidence in his words. The authority of Christ is passed on to the apostles and they demonstrated the same power and were aware of the authority granted to them (Acts 3:15-16, 14:3, 19:11-12;Rom 15:18-19, 2 Cor 12:12,Heb 2:3-4). They wrote to impose their message on the followers of Christ (Heb 2:2-3) and considered it Scripture on par with the Old Testament. Peter calls Paul Scripture (2 Pet 3:16). Paul cites Luke as Scripture (1 Tim 5:18 citing Luke 10:7).

We can see from the NT directly that there was an expectation that the words of the apostles were to be read, copied, and transmitted to all the churches. Paul commanded that they be read (1 Thes 5:27, Col 4:16). Peter and James wrote to those ‘dispersed’ (1 Pet 1:1) and ‘scattered’ (Jam 1:1). A letter from an apostle carried the same weight as a personal visit (3 John 13-14). These Scriptures were read in the early churches (1 Thes 5:27).

When Paul would send a letter to a church like that in Colossae, they would read it publicly but they would also compile the letters to all the churches and exchange letters. There is evidence that someone such as Paul would have a personal secretary and take responsibility for the collection of his own letters. Even personal letters were commonly copied (Cicero, Fam 9.26.1;7.18.1). At this time the technology was also evolving. Scrolls were burdensome and as the letter carriers would collect copies of the letters, they would put them into a codex (book form) with pages instead of a scroll. These groupings tell us what texts were kept but also how they were grouped. So, very early on, we have the collectors and readers in these nascent churches collecting the gospels and letters of Paul in a collection of books. There is no textual evidence that any sub-corpus of Paul’s writings were collected in a set any fewer than the 13 in the NT today.

Exactly 4 gospels

The church Fathers quote from exactly 4 gospels. Papias (AD 70-160) was a disciple of John and personally knew the daughters of the apostle Philip. He explains how Mark came to author the gospel of Mark documenting the teachings of Peter and how Matthew wrote logia (his gospel) which we can rightly identify as one of the sources for the book of Matthew (the other being Mark). (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.15).

Ignatius of Antioch (martyred in AD 110)  show’s a lot of familiarity with John and alludes to the synoptic gospels. He exhorts the church to follow the ‘decrees’ of the apostles implying that his audience had access to the decrees themselves.

Irenaeus (AD 130-200) declared that “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are… it is fitting that she should have four pillars…” (Against Heresies, XI, 8). 

Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) refers to the gospels as the ‘memoirs’ of the apostles and quotes the gospels when he quotes the memoirs.

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me,148 this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. (First Apology, Chapter LXVI quoting Matt 26:27)

He employs a Trinitarian formula and confirms that the memoirs of the apostles are read in the weekly Sunday gathering of the Christians

we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits (First Apology Chapter LXVII)

and confirms the divinity of Christ.

since we find it recorded in the memoirs of His apostles that He is the Son of God, and since we call Him the Son, we have understood that He proceeded before all creatures from the Father by His power and will (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter C)

they spake in mockery the words which are recorded in the memoirs of His apostles: ‘He said he was the Son of God: let him come down; let God save him.’ (dialogue with Trypho, Chapter CI quoting Matt 27:42)

he even knows that some of them are not written by the apostles and quotes Luke when referencing the memoirs in this way.

in the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them, [it is recorded] that His sweat fell down like drops of blood while He was praying, and saying, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass:  (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter CIII quoting Luke 22:44,42)

Justin confirms that the gospel state that Jesus was crucified

And this is recorded to have happened in the memoirs of His apostles. And I have shown that, after His crucifixion, they who crucified Him parted His garments among them. (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter CIV)

Tatian was a follower of Justin Martyr and he compiled a harmony of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The name of the book was the Diatessaron, which means ‘through the 4’. The name itself conveys a general acceptance which would only raise questions if there was any doubt as to what were the 4.

Finally, Origen (185-254) in his commentary on the book of John confirmed that there are only 4 gospels. Origen (185-254) says:

as learned by tradition about the four gospels, which alone are uncontested in the church of God under heaven, that, first, written was Matthew, once publican but later apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for the believers from Judaism, composed in Hebrew letters; but second, Mark, who composed as Peter led him, whom he avowed as son in the catholic epistle, saying as follows: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together, sends you greetings and so does my son Mark” and third, Luke, who has composed for those from the Gentiles the gospel praised by Paul; after all of them, John.

From these quotes and citations, we can see that the early Church had not three, five, or 20 gospels but exactly 4. We can identify those 4 as the modern books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Early and numerous citations of the New Testament

1st Clement of Rome (AD 30-100) quoted extensively from the NT from between 70-80 AD. He referred to 1 Corinthians 2:9 as Scripture. For [the Scripture] saith, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which He hath prepared for them that wait for Him.” (1st epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 34. He also extensively cited or alluded to  Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, Titus, Hebrews, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philemon, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Revelations.

Likewise Barnabas (AD 80) used the term ‘it is written’ quoting Matt 22:14 signifying that he considers the book Scripture.  You can see from the graphic above that Polycarp and Mathetes from the early 2nd century also quoted from much of the NT books. We have such overwhelming support for each book of the NT that we can re-assemble all but 11 verses from quotes in the first 200 years.

 citations of new testament
* Evidence of an early New Testament canon, Noram Geisler, 2015

Extra-canonical, heretical, and gnostic citations

Marcion (130 AD) was a heretic in the early Church and very helpful to us in establishing the role of the books in the NT. He discarded the writings of the apostles and only valued Luke and 10 letters of Paul. We do not have his writings but we have the writings of those that refuted him and we can tell what books were valued by them based on which ones they defended. Tertullian, in refuting Marcion, later tells us that Matthew and John were from apostles and Mark and Luke were from their followers identifying the books we refer to as Matthew and John and Mark and Luke respectively implying that the 4 were accepted in the first half of the 2nd century.

P.Egerton is a fragment of an unknown writing dated from 110-150. It is important because it shows a dependency on the book of John as well as all 3 synoptic gospels. When it recalls one single incident, it shows evidence of drawing on all 3 of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Not only does it draw on all 3 but it exclusively draws on only those 3. Joachim Jeremias states, “There are contacts with all four Gospels. The juxtaposition of Johannine . . . and Synoptic material . . . and the fact that the Johannine material is shot through with Synoptic phrases and the Synoptic with Johannine usage, permits the conjecture that the author knew all and every one of the canonical Gospels.”

In the same way, the gospel of Judas (often dated very early by critical scholars) shows familiarity with a whopping 15 of the 27 books of the NT including the gospel of John. It not only provides support for the transmission of the canonical NT books, it also removes itself as a candidate for the early date that some would attempt to assign it.


The internal evidence of the NT shows an immediate expectation and acceptance of the writings of the apostles. From the Church Fathers, we can see that the sub-corpus of the 4 gospels and the book of Acts were accepted extremely early and exclusively. The letters of Paul were copied, transmitted, and read across the entire population of Christians including his personal letters and the sub-corpus of Paul’s 13 letters were assembled together. Even heretical and gnostic writings confirm the early existence of the gospels in that it is the gospels that they mimic and never the other way around.

* How we got the New Testament, text, transmission, translation by Stanley Porter

Categories: Apologetics
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Steve SchlichterSteve Schlichter

Steve is an evangelical Christian and has 5 children with his wife, Jenni. As a libertarian, he seeks to demonstrate how the cause of liberty is consistent and necessary in a Christian worldview. Steve is a software developer / web designer by trade but he graduated in Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

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Full biography

Steve is an evangelical Christian and has 5 children with his wife, Jenni. As a libertarian, he seeks to demonstrate how the cause of liberty is consistent and necessary in a Christian worldview. Steve is a software developer / web designer by trade but he graduated in Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

You can contact Steve by either emailing him or registering on the site and messaging him.

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