Last post we looked at the work that went into making sure the Old Testament manuscripts were accurate. We have not said they are true, just that they are accurate and have been copied cleanly. Whether or not these accurately copied transcripts are true must wait for another time. This blog will look at the case for the New Testament manuscripts and their accuracy.
Jewish scribes, for obvious reasons, did not copy the New Testament manuscripts. Without this precision of writing how then did we receive the New Testament that we have today? Historians evaluate the textual reliability of ancient literature according to two standards. The first is how much of a time lag is there between the original manuscript and the earliest copy. The second standard is to determine how many manuscript copies exist and compare them. For example, the earliest manuscript copies we have concerning Julius Caesar’s, The Gallic Wars are from around 1,000 years after the events recited in the book, also there are only ten manuscript copies known to exist. Also our modern text of Livy’s History of Rome relies on one partial manuscript and nineteen much later copies dated between 400 and 1,000 years after the original writing. Homer’s Illiad has only a 400-year gap from the time the original manuscript was first written until the first known existing copy. There are also 643 copies of the Illiad in existence.
What does this all tell us? First of all the textual evidence for these writers is considered by scholars to be more than adequate in validating the original. Secondly, this evidence pales in comparison to the evidence we have for the authenticity of the New Testament using the two historical standards for evaluating the authenticity of manuscripts.
No other book in the ancient world can approach the reliability of the New Testament. Remember, we said that there were 643 known copies of the original manuscript of the Illiad. Based upon so many copies the vast majority of historical textual critics agree that Homer wrote the book. Now take a look at the New Testament manuscripts. There are over 25,000 manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts of the NT in libraries and Universities throughout the world. The earliest of these is a fragment of John’s Gospel currently located in the John Ryland’s Library of Manchester, England and it has been dated to within 50 years of the date when John wrote the original Epistle.
A side note of interest concerning the Bible concerns the 18th Century skeptic Voltaire who predicted that within a 100 years of his time Christianity would be little more than a footnote in history. In 1828, 50 years after Voltaire’s death, the Geneva Bible Society moved into his house and used his press to produce tens of thousands of Bibles that they distributed throughout the world.
It is imperative for any court case to make sure the chain of evidence hasn’t been tampered with or changed in any way. For Christians this chain of evidence is much easier than skeptics would have us believe. If we have the first fragment from the Gospel of John from as early as 50 years after the death of Jesus and historians agree that is way too short a time for myth to enter into the story, then we should be able to trace the New Testament documents through to the Council of Laodicea in 363 AD when the New Testament scriptures were codified into the Bible.
In the study of Historical Texts there are seven factors that are taken into consideration. They are:
1. Do we have early testimony concerning the manuscripts? We have been looking at that in this blog and will do more so on the next blog.
2. Do we have eyewitness accounts?
3. Do we have testimony from multiple independent eyewitnesses?
4. Are they trustworthy?
5. Do we have evidence from archaeology?
6. What do enemies of the historical character have to say?
7. Does the testimony of the people involved sometimes lead to embarrassing details being brought out?
Next blog we will follow the line of custody from the time of the writing of the New Testament works right through to the formation of the Bible.
* For accuracy in the Old Testament see the previous post Test of Time…