The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures
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.