Back to the Dawkins & McGrath interview. Around the twenty-six minute mark of the interview, Dr. Dawkins says:

Richard Dawkins… the evidence for the life of Jesus and what he did, historically speaking, is remarkably thin, I think, modern theologians surely agree about that don't they?

In reply, Dr. McGrath begins by noting the remarkably early dating of the New Testament texts … but then within a few seconds leaves the argument about the historical reliability of the New Testament starts talking again about the explanatory power and significance of the events the New Testament records. When I heard this, I thought, "No! Don't let this issue go unchallenged!" While I think the explanatory power of Christianity is an important topic, this was a fantastic opportunity for McGrath to lay out the positive case for the reliability of the New Testament, because certainly many modern theologians (and historians, for that matter, whose primary concern is history after all) don't agree that the evidence is "remarkably thin". (See Gary Habermas' article Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels for an outline and commentary on the approach of modern scholarship.)

Firstly, here are some of the salient points regarding the historicity of the New Testament:

  • The New Testament texts are extremely early. They can be dated closely to the events that they record, much closer than other historical documents from ancient history. The earliest was written approximately 20 years after the crucifixion (compared with hundreds of years for many other political and religious figures whose historicity is not in doubt) and the documents also contain church creeds which date even earlier. The most important of these creeds, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, is usually dated to within 5 years of Jesus' crucifixion! This is, historically speaking, the equivalent of a newsflash.
  • These early documents are the result of eyewitness testimony. Richard Bauckham's recent book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses persuasively argues this point from both internal and external evidence. (Bauckham's interview with Christianity Today, "They Really Saw Him" touches on a few of the points from the book. Note that the link may break after June 2007, I'm not sure how CT's online article posting works.)
  • There are in existence approximately 5,686 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (full copies, books, portions, and fragments). Compared to all other ancient writings, this is virtually a mountain of manuscripts. Having so many copies makes it possible to cross-check them against one another to ensure that the text we use today matches extremely closely to the original text. And it does.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, there are several references to Jesus in non-Christian sources. See for example the online version of Habermas' chapter Ancient Non-Christian Sources from his book The Historical Jesus.

For more on these issues, one site to check out is Jesus: Fact or Fiction … which includes lots of video clips, which surely beats my boring prose, eh? (Hey, you made it this far, I must be doing okay!)

Secondly, even if we take a much more critical stance, and (somewhat arbitrarily) throw out most of what the New Testament contains, a case can still be built that the resurrection (the most central and important event in Christian history) actually did occur. This is called the "minimal facts" approach, and is built upon only facts considered historical by the vast majority of scholars (both Christian and secular, liberal and conservative). Actually, although Habermas' survey of hundreds of sources yielded 12 agreed-upon facts, the case can be built using only four of those twelve!

For an excellent overview of the "minimal facts" approach, see Habermas' article The Facts Concerning the Resurrection.

Just for fun, you can also watch a rather one-sided dialog between Habermas and skeptic Tim Callahan on the resurrection: Part 1 & Part 2 (WMV files). In fairness, Callahan does not provide some of the most sophisticated arguments a critic may use, but nevertheless this dialog demonstrates the power and effectiveness of the minimal facts approach.