The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures

with 6 comments

My last four posts were primarily concerned with making a case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as an actual historical event. Were I a skeptic in regards to this topic, my questions in response would most likely resemble these: “On what basis should I consider the scriptures themselves to be historically reliable? Since when do religious texts qualify as historical sources?

Historical reliability of any ancient textual source is determined on the basis of several criteria. The first area I would like to focus on is referred to as the ‘Bibliographical Test,’ which determines how many manuscript copies we have of the document in question, and how far removed such documents are in time from the originals. I think that this test is easily understood when we compare the New Testament’s manuscript attestation to that of other accepted ancient sources of historical information. First, let’s look at what we do have (please bear with me in the details) in terms of New Testament manuscripts.

There are approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts that contain either the entire New Testament or portions of it. In addition, 8,000 Vulgate (Latin) manuscripts and 350 Syriac (Christian Aramaic) manuscripts remain in existence. Besides these, which amount to over 13,000 documents, almost the entire New Testament could be reproduced from references or citations contained in the works of the early church fathers alone. In fact, prior to the Council of Nicea, which convened in 325 AD, the church fathers had cumulatively cited New Testament scriptures over 32,000 times! The dates of these various manuscripts range from early in the second century (100’s AD) to the time of the Reformation. The earliest of them include the John Rylands manuscript of 120 AD, which contains a few verses from the Gospel of John, the Chester Beatty Papyrii of 200 AD, which contains large portions of the New Testament, and Codex Sinaiticus of 350 AD, which contains virtually the entire New Testament. Most scholars agree that the four gospels and the epistles of Paul and Peter were certainly written prior to 90 AD. (In fact, it is likely that the gospel of Mark was written within two decades of the crucifixion, and some of Paul’s letters even earlier than Mark! More on this in an upcoming post…) From these facts, we can conclude that the space between the autographs (or original manuscripts) and our earliest sources begins at approximately several decades.

In comparison, many of the most well known articles of ancient literature and history do not fare as well. For example, there are approximately 650 existing manuscripts of Homer’s Illiad; the tragedies of Euripides, only 330 manuscripts. Yet, these two are the largest in number among all other ancient Greek literature! As I mentioned above, the lapse in time between the existing Biblical manuscripts and the original autographs varies between 20 to 100 years. However, the lapse between the existing manuscripts of these ancient Greek documents and their autographs varies between 800 to 1000 years!

To say that the historical attestation of the New Testament documents is remarkably robust would be a considerable understatement. Really, it is quite unparalleled! Many other ancient works, like the Greek classics mentioned above, retain their academic and cultural significance with virtually no question yet pale in comparison when assessed on the basis of historical attestation and the ‘Bibliographical Test.’ This is not to say that these sources are thus inherently suspect, but it does show that the New Testament, while often considered suspect, not only satisfies bibliographic criteria but far surpasses the expectations a historian might have.

The value of this information is considerable as it allows us to conclude that the contemporary scriptures used by the Christian church are virtually unchanged and undistorted from their original form. Not only is this a profound testimony to the many skeptics who are prone to assume the intentional manipulation of the scriptures for the purposes of control and power, it also affirms the resilience and incorruptibility one aught to expect of a document claiming to be the word of God.


Written by Christopher Butler

April 4, 2006 at 9:11 pm

6 Responses

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  1. […] Yet, on the basis of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents (see The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures for a defense of this), I think that it is quite obvious that Paul is not the subversive figure that some scholars like Maccoby have made him out to be. While Paul is responsible for an enormous portion of the growth of the Christian church, and is without a doubt the most influential apostolic voice in the scriptures, it does not follow that Paul is the creator of Christian doctrine. Neither does his influence as a man merit the great suspicion with which some skeptical scholars approach his writings and the truth of Christianity at large, unless a predisposition towards conspiracy theories is considered valid scholarship. […]

  2. […] As I mentioned in my previous post, we depend upon copies of the original scriptural documents, or autographs, as none of them still exist. Now, before this statement fills us with doubt or skepticism regarding the integrity of the message translated from one document to another, it is helpful to keep in mind that no autographs exist of many sources which we depend upon to reconstruct the history and culture of ancient civilization. In other words, the absence of autographs is common and not a mortal blow to the endeavor of discovering the original words or meaning of many ancient documents. Consequently, the more manuscript copies are available, especially those close in proximity to the writing of the original, the more accurate the reconstruction can be. For more on how this principle establishes the reliability of the New Testament documents, see my previous post. […]

  3. Below, I quote a man by, I believe, the name of Steven Carr. He is a skeptic and proclaimed athiest. I wonder if you could read the quote below, and give me your thoughts concerning it.
    I am a believer, by the way. I am not trying to argue with your comments, I would just like to hear a rebuttal to this, I suppose.

    Thank you

    Sharon Benter

    ***Of the over 5000 manuscripts we have, this man states that:
    “2,811 of these manuscripts are in the minuscule writing. This tiny writing was only used from the 9th century onwards. 2,279 manuscripts are lectionaries and only about 30 (thirty) lectionaries date from before the 9th century.”

    sharon benter

    May 26, 2006 at 7:59 am

  4. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for your comments. The Steven Carr quote (from here?) sounds suspiciously like one from Yesai Nasrai, the webmaster of the "Order of Nazorean Essenes, A Buddhist Branch of Original Christianity." On the page titled 'Forged New Testament,' Nasrai comments that:

    "Over the course of time the originals were lost, worn out, or purposely destroyed for a variety of reasons. The Nazarene, or "Jewish Christians", had a motivation to keep the original tradition inviolate and pure. All other groups, including the ones who became dominant and orthodox, had a stake in changing the original gospel and its texts to suit their own urbanized culture and different Romanized view of things. They did not appreciate the existence of the "Jewish Christians" and their more original texts and practices. In fact, they went to great lengths not only discredit them and their eye witness accounts, but even went so far as to successfully legislate their destruction in the fourth century. Many resurfacing manuscripts, such as the Nag Hammadhi library, may have been buried as a result of these persecution and book burning campaigns of the fourth century…There exists about 5,487 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. 2,811 of these are in a form of writing, minuscule, which was not used before the ninth century. 2,279 of these Greek manuscripts are lectionaries, with only 30 of them dating before the ninth century."

    This is a common twisting of the facts to promote a 'Judeo-Gnostic' origin of Christianity which flies in the face of chronological historical facts. The Nag-Hammadi documents were Gnostic, not Jewish, psudepigrapha pubished in the second to fifth centuries. To imply that these preceeded and are more authentic than the canonical Gospels is absurd and simply false.

    However, to address the content of the quote you provided about the minuscule and lectionary manuscripts, it is important to reemphasize the purpose in noting the numbers of Gospel copies. The purpose is not to suggest that numbers=authenticity. If it were the case, than one might nonsensically suggest that the number of refutations of Christianity that exist would authoritatively discredit the faith simply by volume. Of course, this is certainly not the case. Rather, the purpose in noting the remarkably large number of manuscripts is to emphasize the benefit of having such an extensive paper trail of Biblical transmission. This allows scholars to be able to thoroughly track the progress of the text and discern where errors were made and where similarities indicate accuracy. Essentially, it is this process which allows for Bible translations to increase in accurracy over time, rather than decrease. So, the fact that many are from later dates says nothing about the fact that a remarkable amount (though less) date much earlier than the miniscule or lectionary versions and show accurate preservation between the two. In fact, the entire list of manuscripts in my post appearing after this one (A Survey of New Testament Documents) are neither minuscule nor lectionary versions and are essential in Biblical textual criticism and the creation of accurate translations. Keep in mind that the transmission process looks, in retrospect, like a family tree. One manuscript might be copied multiple times, followed by multiples of the multiples. Therefore, one would would expect to see an exponential increase in manuscript copies, especially at times where those skilled in writing were more abundant.

    Incidentally, regarding lectionaries, their entire purpose was to serve as a collection of selected readings for worship services. Given that they were created for yearly schedules that would repeat, one would expect to find many of them, especially as the church became larger and more institutionalized. Given the abundance of the lectionaries, one should not infer that they simply sprang out of nowhere, but that they are compilations of existing and available texts, which only reaffirms the fact that the scriptures were considered authoritative and were many in number at the time.

    Lastly, I would again recall that many of the early manuscripts are relatively complete versions, such as Codex Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Ephraemi Rescriptus, Bezae, and Washingtonianus. As I also noted above,

    "almost the entire New Testament could be reproduced from references or citations contained in the works of the early church fathers alone. In fact, prior to the Council of Nicea, which convened in 325 AD, the church fathers had cumulatively cited New Testament scriptures over 32,000 times!"

    The Essene site (assuming it as the source or a derivation of your quote) has an agenda to distort history and is attempting to infer that the numbers demonstrate that the canonical scriptures appeared later as 'replacements' of what they claim to be the more authentic sources (apparently the gnostic gospels). I can assure you that this is absolutely not the case. For more information about textual variants in the early manuscripts, read Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration and Inerrancy. I think that Steven Carr, like Bart Ehrman, assumes that Inspiration is at risk because of these variants, so revealing them will undermine the validity of the faith. I dispute this idea in the linked post. Thanks,



    May 30, 2006 at 9:43 am

  5. Many years ago I read somewhere that the oldest known copy of the Gospel of John was carbon dated to about 125 AD. I do not remember where I read this, and have been unable to find the source. In any event, I agree that there is a concerted effort here on the part of atheists and neo-Gnostic, New Age followers to totally destroy the entire New Testament, and replace it with their own books. But even there, they slip up. The Nazorean Essene webpage evens admits that Quirinus (sic) who was the governor of Syria during the census mentioned by Luke, actually ruled twice, the first time being during the reign of Herod, and this helps explain the so-called ten discrepancy between Matthew, who has Jesus born during the time of Herod (who died in 4 BC) and the govenorship of Quirinus of 6 AD. Skeptics have used this ten year gap to attack the veracity of the Gospels, and they continue to do so, even though they are obviously wrong. Also, the so-called connection between Christianiy and Mitraism, which people like Archaya S constantly harp on, is nonsense. Mithras did not have 12 apostles, since it turns out the 12 images at the Mithraic churches are a reference to the Zodiac, not 12 followers. She also states that Mithras was born of a virgin in a cave, like Jesus, more nonsense. Mithras was born of solid rock, and after he came out of the rock, a cave was formed! That is a big difference! Thank you.

    Harold Barnett

    July 2, 2006 at 7:35 pm

  6. Cool!


    May 18, 2007 at 12:10 am

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