The Best-Documented Document of Them All.


Introduction.

Before we consider the content, we need to be satisfied that the text we have today is an accurate reproduction of the originals. Opponents of Christianity frequently claim it is unreliable: but this, quite literally, could not be farther from the truth. Of all the classical works of this period that historians take for granted, not one comes remotely near the New Testament in the sheer quantity and quality of evidence for its accuracy.

How were Ancient Documents Preserved?

Very occasionally, by some fluke, an original copy or fragment of an ancient document has survived to the present day: but the chances of this happening are so remote that no significant literature of these times has ever been preserved in this manner. The writing materials of the day were prone to decay; and the more they were used, the faster they would degrade, so it was necessary for documents to be copied, for their preservation as well as for circulation.

Particularly in the case of the scriptures, such care was taken in the copying process that a copy, once completed and checked, was deemed to be of equal authority with the original. Once the original had degraded to a point where it could no longer be easily read, it was normally discarded, often being burned. Indeed, Tischendorf’s first major manuscript discovery in the monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai (the Codex Frederico-Augustanus), was in a basket of old papers being used to light the oven. The monks apparently thought him very strange for getting so excited about the disposal of a few old and damaged documents! Consequently it was not until 15 years later in 1859, when he made them a gift of a copy of the Septuagint Old Testament, that the steward casually remarked that he already had one of these; and showed him the now world-famous Codex Sinaiticus, which also contains the second oldest complete copy of the New Testament.

How is the Reliability of Ancient Copies Assessed?

Obviously, the lack of original documents presents problems for the historian, but a number of key factors may be used in order to assess the reliability of those copies that survive:

  • How close to the original are the oldest surviving copies?
  • How many copies survive?
  • Do the surviving copies agree with each other?
  • Can the text be confirmed from external citations?

How Does the New Testament Compare with other Contemporary Documents?

Setting the Bible aside for a moment, by far the best-attested document of Graeco-Roman times was Homer’s Illiad. Written about 900 BC, it was very widely circulated, and there are 643 surviving manuscript copies. However, the earliest of these dates from around 400 BC, leaving a gap of 500 years from the original. The works of Virgil have the smallest gap, at about 350 years: but these are based on just 7 major codices. Other classical documents come nowhere near this, and many are incomplete, as the table below illustrates:

    No of Years to: No of
Description Origin 1st Fragment 1st Copy Manuscripts
Virgil – Aeneid 70-19 BC   350 7
Homer – Iliad 900 BC   500 643
Pliny – History 61-113 AD   750 7
Suetonius – De Vita Caesarum 75-160 AD   800 8
Caesar – Gallic Wars 100-44 BC 950 950 10
Livy – Roman History * 59 BC-17 AD 200-300 900 25
Tacitus – Histories/Annals * 100 AD 900 1,100 20
Lucretius ?-55 BC   1,100 2
Demosthenes 383-322 BC   1,300 200**
Aristophanes 450-385 BC   1,200 10
Plato – Tetralogies 427-347 BC   1,200 7
Thucydides – History 460-400 BC 500 1,300 8
Herodotus – History 480-425 BC   1,300 8
Aristotle – various works 384-322 BC   1,400 49***
Sophocles 496-406 BC   1,400 193
Euripides 480-406 BC   1,500 9
Catullus 54 BC   1,600 3

* Substantial portions lost. ** All from one copy. *** Maximum for any single work.

N.B. ‘1st fragment’ and ‘1st Copy’ dates in the above table are indicative only, as the ‘1st Copy’ manuscripts are frequently incomplete, and ‘1st fragment’ dates are often difficult to obtain. Any additional data on this subject would be welcomed.

By contrast, not only is the interval between date of writing of the New Testament documents, their earliest fragments and the full manuscripts shorter than any of the above, the number of surviving manuscripts exceeds the combined total of all the above by a factor of twenty, as shown below:

    No of Years to: No of
Description Origin 1st Fragment 1st Copy Manuscripts
New Testament 40-100 AD   300 24,300 *
  Matthew   50-65 AD 150    
  Mark   50-60 AD 175    
  Luke   59-70 AD 140    
  John   90 AD 40    
  Paul   50-65 AD 150    

* 5,000 in Greek, 10,000 Latin translations and 9,300 in other languages.

The above dates of origin are based upon recent scholastic trends, which now favour earlier datings than were current in the early 1900s. Of course, if the documents had originated later, then the time lapse to the first known fragments would necessarily be even smaller.

Do the Surviving Copies Agree?

With so many surviving manuscripts, textual variations resulting from copyists’ and translators’ errors are only to be expected. However, out of the roughly 20,000 lines in the NT, only about 40 are in doubt. By way of comparison Homer’s Iliad, which has the next largest number of extant manuscripts, has 15,600 lines, of which 764 (5 percent) are in doubt.

Even of the variations that do exist, it is found that the vast majority are trivial matters of spelling, word order, etc.. Those that are in any sense ‘substantial’ equate to something in the order of one thousandth of the entire text. Even the more substantial variants are of no real doctrinal significance. In the words of the editors of the Revised Standard Version:

“It will be obvious to the careful reader that still in 1946, as in 1881 and 1901, no doctrine of the Christian faith has been affected by the revision, for the simple reason that, out of the thousands of variant readings in the manuscripts, none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine.”

Can the Text be Confirmed from External Citations?

Another remarkable feature of the New Testament is the extent to which it is cited in early Christian writings. The works of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Eusebius between them contain over 36,000 quotations. A total of over 86,000 citations have been documented, although not all of these are literal quotations. The scope of these citations is so extensive that it has been estimated that the entire New Testament, barring just eleven verses, can be found in quotations from church sources of the second and third centuries!

Summary

On every historical criterion, the text of the New Testament is vastly better documented and corroborated than any other document of these times. In the words of Sir Frederick Kenyon, director and principal librarian of the British Museum:

“The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

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