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7 Ways to Determine If a NT Text Contains Earlier Content

7 Ways to Determine If a NT Text Contains Earlier Content

One of the most powerful ways a person can know that the testimony of Jesus is not the product of late legendary fictions is the evidence of pre-New Testament (pre-NT) material found in the New Testament text. Perhaps the most popular and important of the pre-NT material is the resurrection creedal formulation of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. Other important pre-NT material includes Colossians 1:15-20 and the hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. Gary Habermas also includes the following texts from Acts as pre-NT material: Acts 1:21-22; 2:22-36; 3:13-16; 4:8-10; 5:29-32; 10:39-43; 13:28-31. Habermas's writings indicate that there are many, many more of these early texts.

A person recently asked me, "How can we tell if a text is early and predates the NT document?" Gary Habermas provides the answer. Habermas notes seven ways a person can tell if a text comes from material that predates the document being written. In other words, it shows that the author is pulling from material that predates his or her writing.

1. Delivered Material. The first way that a person can tell if the material is earlier than the writing is if the author claims that he is providing material that was received. Going back to 1 Corinthians 15, Paul starts off the creedal statement by saying, "For I passed on to you as most important what I also received" (1 Cor. 15:3). The admission that the material was received strongly indicates that the text is early. Many scholars have dated 1 Cor. 15:3-7 to no later than 3-5 years after Jesus's resurrection, some indicating that it may be dated to within months after the resurrection.

2. Parallelism and Stylized Accounts. Jewish writings use certain styles especially in their poetry. Jewish poetry did not focus so much on rhyme as much as they did on parallelism. In the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the OT), at least three forms of parallelism were used: synonymous (repetition of a phrase that builds upon the previous statement, see Ps. 2:4), antithetic (the second line states something in contrast to the first, see Pr. 15:2), and synthetic (the rest of the phrase builds upon the concept first presented, see Ps. 1). These methods may have helped individuals memorize the text. Nevertheless, when a form of parallelism is found in the NT text, it serves as an indication that the author is pulling from earlier material that did not originate with him.

3. Proper Rather than Popular Names Employed. Often, one can tell if a text is early if proper names are used rather than the more popular versions. For instance, when the Aramaic form of Peter's name is used, Cephas, the text comes from an earlier source than the author.

4. Triple Hoti Clauses. Habermas notes that another indicator of early material is what he calls the "triple hoti clauses." Hoti is translated as "and that." When the term hoti is used three times, it indicates a style of Hebrew narration that indicates that the material is earlier than the author's writing.

5. Scripture Being Fulfilled. Habermas notes that there are times when the author provides early material to prove that the event fulfills Scripture. This indicates that the material used is early as the author is making an apologetic point.

6. Indications of Aramaic Originality. Aramaisms (words left untranslated from Aramaic) indicate that the material is very early. An example of an Aramaism is in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus raises a little girl back to life, he says "Talitha koum" (Mk. 5:41). This is an indicator that the material is very early.

7. Differing Terminology. Finally, if the terminology, diction, and/or structure of the material is different from that which is normally used by the author, there is a strong indication that the material is derived from a source earlier than the author.

The more I read about pre-NT material, the more I am convinced that the entire NT is riddled with early material. While I hold to traditional NT authorship (that is, that the early church historians noted correctly who wrote the Gospels and NT texts), this pre-NT material actually ensures that even if the NT documents were written later they pulled from material that originated with the early church. One who holds to the historicity of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection stands upon a sure foundation. The one who discredits Jesus's historicity stands upon sinking sand.

© 2018.

Brian G. Chilton is the founder of and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University. Brian has been in the ministry for over 15 years and serves as a pastor in northwestern North Carolina.