Why I Believe the Bible #08 (Bibliographic Evidence For The New Testament)

Wayne —  October 7, 2009 — 1 Comment

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Last week we looked in depth at the proof for the authenticity and accuracy of the Old Testament including the excruciating process for transmitting the Bible from one generation to the next.  This week we will look at the bibliographic evidence for the New Testament.

Number of Ancient Manuscripts of the New Testament

The number of ancient copies of the New Testament which have been discovered to date is staggering.  Compared to all other books of antiquity, the number of existing copies of the New Testament is amazing.  The survival of the number of manuscripts alone would lead you to believe that there is some supernatural element.

The following chart shows the number of Greek Copies of the New Testament compared to other ancient texts:

Author

Book

Written

Earliest Copy

Gap

# of Copies

New Testament

A.D. 50-100

c. 114 (fragment)

c. 200 (books)

c. 250 (most)

c. 325 (complete)

+50 yrs.

100 yrs.

150 yrs.

225 yrs.

5,686 (Greek Only)

Homer Illiad

800 B.C.

c. 400 B.C.

c. 400 yrs.

643

Herodotus History

480-425 B.C.

c. A.D. 900

c. 1350 yrs.

8

Thucydides History

460-400 B.C.

c. A.D. 900

c. 1350 yrs.

8

Plato

400 B.C.

c. A.D. 900

c. 1350 yrs.

7

Demostenes

300 B.C.

c. A.D. 1100

c. 1400 yrs.

200

Ceaser Gallic Wars

100-44 B.C.

c. A.D. 900

c. 1000 yrs.

10

Livy History of Rome

59 B.C. –

A.D. 17

4th century (partial)

10th century (mostly)

c. 400-1000 yrs.

1 partial

19 copies

Tacitus Annals

A.D. 100

c. A.D. 1100

c. 1000 yrs.

20

Piny Secondus Natural History

A.D. 61-113

c. A.D. 850

c. 750 yrs.

7

Compared to other books, the number of existing new testaments in the original Greek is astounding.  Furthermore, the Bible also far surpasses other ancient books in terms of the proximity of the copies discovered to the original autographs.  The earliest copies of the New Testament currently known are dated to within 50 years of the originals.  The first complete copy is within 225 years.  By contrast, Homer’s Illiad is the second most authenticated book of antiquity.  The Bible has 5,686 Greek copies dated within 25 to 225 years.  The Illiad has 643 copies with the earliest dated to 400 years after the original manuscript.  Despite this, no one seriously questions that the text we now have of the Illiad does not match the original.

Sir Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum and manuscript authority, concludes based on number and proximity to autographs, that:

“…both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

In addition to the Greek manuscripts cited above, a significant number of ancient non-Greek copies of the manuscript have also been located including:

Latin Vulgate 10,000 +
Ethiopic 2,000 +
Slavic 4,101
Aremenian 2,587
Syriac Pashette 350 +
Bohairic 100
Arabic 75
Old Latin 50
Anglo Saxon 7
Gothic 6
Sogdian 3
Old Syriac 2
Persian 2
Frankish 1
TOTAL 19,284 +

Combined with the 5,686 Greek copies, that amounts to nearly 25,000 copies of the New Testament known to date.  The ESV study Bible sums it up well:

“In comparison with the remaining manuscripts of any other ancient Greek or Latin literature, the New Testament suffers from an embarrassment of riches.”

Textual Variants

Because of the “embarrassment of riches” afforded by the overwhelming number of copies of New Testaments, scholars have been able to compare the numerous copies to discover any differences and determine what the most accurate rendering of the New Testament is.

The Greek New Testament today contains approximately 138,000 words.  Due to the large number of copies in existence, scholars have identified roughly 400,000 textual variant.  A textual variant is any time one of the manuscript varies in any way from another.  For example, if there was a slip of the pen and “a” became “an” in one known version of the New Testament, every time that differed from a version that said “a” would count as one textual variant.  In other words, if 4,000 copies read “a” and one read “an” that would count as 4,000 textual variants.  Accordingly, despite the seemingly large number of variants at 400,000, that is mostly due to the large number of copies in existence.

Textual variants are grouped into four categories:

  1. Spelling and non-sense errors
  2. Minor changes, including synonyms and alterations that do not affect the translation
  3. Meaningful changes that are not viable
  4. Meaningful changes that are viable

The fourth category makes up less than 1% of the textual variants.  Effectively, of the 400,000 variants virtually all amount to typos or stylistic differences, and none change the meaning of the passage.  Based on cross-checking the thousands of copies of the New Testament, scholars have determined it to be 99.5% textually accurate.  Of the remaining 0.5%, only one-eighth (1/8) amounts anything more than a stylistic different or misspelling.  In fact, there are only 40 places in the New Testament where we are unsure what the original reading was.

Norman Geisler explains in his book When Skeptics Ask:

“Note: the problem is not that we don’t know what the text is, but we are not certain which text has the right reading.”

There are only two large variants which are missing from the earliest and best manuscripts.  Those are Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11.  Far from hiding or covering up these variants, most modern translations note these variants and give the different possibilities.   As indicated earlier, none of these variants affects a significant doctrine of the Christian faith.

With regards to differences in the New Testament text, Dockery, Matthew & Sloan (as cited by Josh McDowell in the book Evidence That Demands a Verdict) state:

“Although there are certain differences in many of the New Testament manuscripts, not one fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading.”

Reconstruction of the New Testament

Even if none of the ancient manuscripts had survived to present times, virtually the entire New Testament could be reconstructed from sermons, tracts and commentaries written by church fathers prior to the end of the third century.  Over 32,000 quotes of the New Testament have been discovered which can be dated prior to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.  Only 11 verses from the entire New Testament are missing from those quotes.  Most are from 2 John and 3 John.

Over 1 million total Patristic quotations have been catalogued with over 36,000 of those coming from just seven church fathers as follows:

Justin Martyr 330
Iraneaus 1,819
Clement (Alexandria) 2,406
Origen 17,992
Tertullian 7,258
Hippolytus 1,378
Eusebius 5,176
TOTAL 36,289

Additionally, there are quotations of the New Testament in thousands of early Lectionaries (worship books).

Conclusion

The bibliographic evidence for the accuracy of the New Testament we have today is astounding.  Furthermore, the wealth of available copies adds to the near certainty that the New Testament we read today is the same as it was when originally recorded.  Of all the variations in the thousands of copies of the New Testament discovered to date, not one effects a fundamental belief of the Christian faith!  Next week we will look at the process by which certain books became part of the Bible we have today and refute claims that people chose to exclude certain books because it did not further their agenda.

Return to the Why I Believe The Bible index page.

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