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A Survey of New Testament Documents

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The reliability of the New Testament is a value indicative of the fantastic catalogue of manuscripts that have been preserved and kept since the beginning of the church at the time of Christ. For the record, and as an addendum to my previous post, I would like to briefly survey some of the most important and ancient manuscripts from among the many available to scholars today.

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.

The manuscript that many scholars estimate is closest to the autographs, classified as P46 (otherwise referred to as the Chester Beatty Papyrus II, after its owner), contains all of the Pauline pastoral epistles, and has been dated at the end of the first century. If this dating is correct, it places P46 within twenty to thirty years of Paul’s original letters and would be the largest and oldest collection of New Testament manuscripts currently in our possession. The next document in chronological order, referred to as P52, is dated around 110-125 AD and contains John 18, verses 31-34 and 37-38. This document is a fragment to say the least, but it was part of a larger manuscript copy of the Gospel of John, produced within twenty to thirty years of the original. The following are a selection of some of the other important New Testament papyri:

The Oxyrhychus Papyri
This group of documents was literally recovered from the ancient garbage dumps of Egypt! In 1898, archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt discovered the site in Oxyrhychus, Egypt, which included an enormous amount of written information, including legal documents, literature, business receipts, and letters, as well as over 35 New Testament manuscripts. Many of these manuscripts were fragments of larger works. Included were P1, containing Matthew 1, P5, containing John 1 and 16, P13, containing Hebrews 2-5 and 10-12, and P22, containing John 15-16.

The Chester Beatty Papyri
This collection of documents was found and purchased from an Egyptian dealer in the 1930’s, and bears the name of its owner. As I mentioned above, two of its manuscripts, P46 and P52, are recognized for their age and proximity to the autographs. In addition to those two, P45, which contains portions of the Gospels and Acts and P47, which contains Revelation 9-17, are included.

The Bodmer Papyri
Also named for its owner, M. Martin Bodmer, and purchased from an Egyptian dealer through the 1950’s and 1960’s, this collection includes P66, from 175 AD and containing the majority of the Gospel of John, P72, of the third century and containing both 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, and P75, from 200 AD containing portions of Luke 3 through John 15.

Codex Sinaiticus
This manuscript is a complete edition of the New Testament. It was discovered by Constantin vo Tischendorf in a monastery located near Mount Sinai. It is dated around 350 AD.

Codex Vaticanus
Preserved in the library of the Vatican since 1481, this manuscript was not available for examination until the mid-1800’s! It has been dated prior to Codex Sinaiticus, and includes the entire Old Testament and the New Testament through Hebrews 9:15 in Greek. Still today, Vaticanus is considered one of the most reliable sources of the autograph text.

Codex Alexandrinus
This manuscript is dated in the 5th century and contains almost the entire New Testament. Scholars emphasize its reliability especially in regards to the Pauline epistles and the book of Revelation.

Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus
Also from the 5th century, this particular manuscript is quite interesting. The document itself is a palimpsest, or one which has been written over previously written and erased writing. Ephraemi Rescriptus was restored by Tischendorf using a process of chemical recovery which revealed the New Testament text beneath a collection of the sermons of Ephraemi.

Codex Bezae
Named after the man who discovered it, Theodore Beza, this manuscript contains the Gospels and Acts and is from the 5th century AD.

Codex Washingtonianus
Another 5th century manuscript and also known as the Freer Gospels (named for its owner, Charles Freer), Washingtonianus includes all four Gospels and is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures

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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