Three Witnesses of Rembrandt’s Painting (and Reasons to Trust the New Testament)
In 1653 the Dutch artist Rembrandt completed a project depicting three epic figures from history (painting above). The original work is one of the most celebrated pieces of artwork at the MET in New York. If you’ve scanned the picture above and concluded there are only two persons, you’re missing something—or someone.
The man standing with his hand on the head of the statue is the Greek philosopher Aristotle who lived a few centuries before Jesus was born. The bust upon which his hand rests, is that of the poet Homer who lived in the eighth and seventh centuries. The person you likely missed is Aristotle’s most famous student, symbolized by the gold sash which has a small locket, which if you were able to look close enough, you would be able to see has a very small image of him—Alexander the Great.
How does all this point to the trustworthiness of the New Testament? There’s not a big brouhaha over whether or not the three guys in the painting existed or if we know anything about their lives or writings. But there’s far more literary evidence for the Bible.
First, consider Alexander the Great. There were surely some histories written about him shortly after his death, but they are all lost. The ones we have are later, and the one that’s considered most reliable was written over four-hundred years after the events it describes.
Second, look at Alexander’s mentor, that robust intellectual Aristotle. His teachings are fundamental in academic philosophy programs. His writing on rhetoric is foundational. But the oldest copy we have of his works from over twelve-hundred years after Aristotle died.
And last but not least, think about that gray head that Aristotle is resting on. There’s more literary evidence for Homer’s writings than anything else in antiquity—that is, with the exception of the New Testament. It’s thought Homer didn’t originally write his poems, but composed them and transmitted them orally for performance. They were likely written down in the sixth century. So, there’s a two hundred year gap between their composition and their being written. But we don’t have those copies. Our oldest copies are from about five centuries after Homer’s death.
If we were to take the five hundred year gap, what I’ll call the “Homer Gap,” and apply it to the timeline of the New Testament, what do you think we might find? A lot! Within less than a century of the New Testament being written it was already being translated into the other languages. Christians in northern Africa were executed in AD 180 for possessing Paul’s letters in Latin. By the time you get to the fourth century, Augustine and Jerome both would complain that there were more Latin translations of the New Testament than Greek copies.
According to scholar Bruce Metzger, there were five to six different translations of the New Testament in Syriac. There’s more than just Latin and Syriac translations going on in the “Homer Gap.” Around AD 360, a guy named Ulfilas created a written language for the Gothic people. He made an alphabet based on their spoken language and then translated the New Testament for them.
The translations of the New Testament into other languages during the first five hundred years only compliments that treasury of ancient Greek copies that we still have in existence today. Some scholars argue that we have as many as eleven fragments that can be as early as the second century. One fragment, called P52, is a piece from John’s gospel and is thought to be from within one hundred years of the original writing.
You may not have thought a Rembrandt painting hanging in the MET could say all that about the trustworthiness of the New Testament. The Bible outshines all three of the dudes in that portrait. Far more than Alexander the Great, Aristotle, and Homer, the writings of Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, et al, stands in a league of its own.