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The New Testament Reliability Compared to Other Famous Ancient Works

May 18, 2012

 Skeptical View of the New Testament Documents

I was on an online forum recently and a comment posted by a user caught my attention. This person wrote “You shouldn’t trust what the New Testament says because it is well known that we don’t have the originals! Therefore, how can we trust that it originally said what it says today?”

In other words what she is saying is:

  1. One can only trust documents for which we have the originals

  2. We do not have the original New Testament manuscripts

  3. Therefore, we cannot trust the New Testament

Skeptical View of All Written History

Although it is no secret that we do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament, it is naïve to assume that because we do not have the original documents we cannot trust what we read today. Why? Because by comparison we also do not have the original manuscripts of any other ancient work of literature. Let me say that again – we do not have the originals of any manuscript of any ancient work of literature. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Why is this an important fact to consider? Because if we ascribe the same scrutiny associated with the New Testament to that of other ancient works, we would be forced to conclude:

  1. One can only trust documents for which we have the originals

  2. We do not have originals of any ancient documents

  3. Therefore, we cannot trust any ancient documents

Would we dare to say that we cannot trust at all the words written about Caesar? Plato? Aristotle? What about Homer’s Iliad? Should we abandon everything written down in our history textbooks because we do not have the originals? I sure hope not. Otherwise many people have wasted a lot of time and money reading, studying, and teaching historical events over the years.

 Manuscript Evidence: New Testament vs. Famous Ancient Works

To start we must affirm that the question of authenticity for ancient texts is not really a religious concern at all; it’s an academic one that can be answered in an academic way totally unrelated to spiritual convictions by a simple appeal to the facts.  For instance the science of textual criticism is used to test all documents of antiquity–not just religious texts–including historical and literary writings.  It’s not a theological enterprise based on hopes and guesses; it’s a linguistic exercise that follows a set of established rules.

So what about the New Testament? How does it stack up against other ancient works of antiquity?  It is known among contemporary scholarship that the manuscript evidence that gives us assurance that we have reliable copies of the Bible far outweighs the evidence for all other ancient writings combined! 

Norman Geisler, Philosopher and Theologian wrote on this subject, “No other book is even a close second to the Bible on either the number or early dating of the copies. The average secular work from antiquity survives on only a handful of manuscripts; the New Testament boasts thousands.”(1)

Bruce Metzger, professor of New Testament studies at Princeton University, wrote that compared to the manuscript evidence of all other ancient writings “the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.”(2) In other words, the evidence is there and comparisons can be made to retrieve a very close proximity to the original text.

Dr. Benjamin Warfield, Former professor of theology at Princeton Seminary concluded from his study on the topic, “If we compare the present state of the text of the New Testament with that of no matter what other ancient work, we must…declare it marvelously exact.”

A Chart of Comparison

Below is a chart comparing the New Testament to 17 other famous works of antiquity. I compared qualities such as when is it believed that the originals were written compared to the earliest copy that we have to date. I compared the time span between the originals and the copies we have today. I also compared how many copies we have with each other which can be used to maintain proper translations. 

THE HISTORICITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AGAINST OTHER TEXTS OF ANTIQUITY

ANCIENT DOCUMENT

ORIGINAL

EARLIEST COPY

TIME SPAN

# OF COPIES

New Testament 40-100 A.D. 125 A.D. 25 5,686*
Homer 900 B.C. 400 B.C. 500 643
Pliny 61-113 A.D. 850 A.D. 750 7
Suetonius 75-160 A.D. 950 A.D. 800 8
Tacitus 100 A.D. 1000 A.D. 900 1
Caesar 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1000 10
Tacitus 100 A.D. 1100 A.D. 1000 5
Lucretius 53 B.C. 1153 A.D. 1100 2
Aristophanes 450-385 B.C. 900 A.D. 1200 10
Plato 427-347 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1200 7
Demosthenes 383-322 B.C. 900 A.D. 1300 200
Thucydides 460-400 B.C. 900 A.D. 1300 8
Herodotus 480-425 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1300 8
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. 1000 A.D 1400 49
Sophocles 496-406 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1400 193
Euripides 480-406 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1500 9
Catullus 54 B.C. 1550 A.D. 1600 3
Livy 59 B.C. – 17 A.D. 400 A.D. 400 20

(*Total New Testament manuscripts = 5,686 Greek MSS, 10,000 Latin Vulgates, 9,300 others = 24,986 copies) 

What about consistency or variants between the texts?

In the many thousands of manuscript copies we possess of the New Testament, scholars have discovered that there are some 150,000 “variants.” This may seem like a staggering figure to the uninformed mind. But to those who study the issue, the numbers are not so staggering as it may initially appear.  Indeed, a look at the hard evidence shows that the New Testament manuscripts are amazingly accurate and trustworthy. 

To begin, we must emphasize that out of these 150,000 variants, 99% hold virtually no significance whatsoever.  Many of these variants simply involve a missing letter in a word; some involve reversing the order of two words (such as “Christ Jesus” instead of “Jesus Christ”); some may involve the absence of one or more insignificant words.  Really, when all the facts are put on the table, only about 50 of the variants have any real significance – and even then, no doctrine of the Christian faith or any moral commandment is effected by them.

In conclusion, if Biblical critics acknowledge the historicity and writings of other individuals such as listed above then they must also retain the historicity and writings of the New Testament authors; after all, the evidence for the New Testament’s reliability is far greater than the others. Furthermore, because of the abundance of early and independent manuscripts, critics are able to determine that the accuracy between the texts is at a very high degree.  Is this sufficient enough for us to place our faith in the Bible as the inspired word of God?  For some people the answer is no; no amount of “evidence” will convince them to believe.  For others yes; it is easy to believe in the words written in the Bible.  Why is that?  How come some believe and some do not?  Is it because some people are smarter than others?  No not at all.  It is because the Christian faith is not based on manuscript evidence or textual accuracy or any hard “evidence” for that matter.  Rather it is by the grace of God that one comes to believe and by his grace alone.  The Apostle Paul explains this when he wrote,

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2:8

Peace and God Bless

Citations

{1} Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, ‘New Testament Manuscripts’ p531-537

{2} Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3

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