Bible verse used in the podcast
- Psalm 12:6-7 ESV
- General articles on the new testament
- Other history texts
Are the New Testament manuscripts reliable?
Let’s talk about the New Testament. There is a large amount of debate about when the writings were done and what is the date of the oldest manuscripts we have where written. There are some things to understand. When we talk about the writing of the manuscript and the oldest copy we have, they are not the same thing. When a writer writes, their work is copied and then copied again. The date of writing is considered fixed (although which date to fix it on maybe debated). We might not have their first copy of the first copy of the first copy. We might have the tenth copy down the line. The question is, how much time passed between the first copy and the last copy we currently have. Two days is not a big deal, two thousand years is.
Comparing the New Testament
The last of the writings of the New Testament was completed around or before 100AD by John the disciple (exactly is debated). Some people will put the date earlier than this but this is generally the upper limit. From there he wrote, his letters were passed around and the earliest copies we have of his writers are generally considered to be no greater than 40-50 years (though this is debated by skeptics). This seems rather large until you realize that there are over 5,000 manuscripts that can be dated to be copied around that time. Now compare this to The Gallic War which talks about Caesar’s military campaign in Europe. This is clearly a historical event and the writings tell us information about Caesar, a person we can agree lived and had a large influence on the world. There was a gap of about 950 years from the original manuscripts to the oldest and we have the total number is around 251. By volume there are more manuscripts that talk about Jesus life than Caesar’s military campaign and here is a table that compares other ancient sources [a bigger list can be found here]:
|Author||Work||Date Written||Time Gap||# of copies|
|Caesar||Gallic Wars||100-44 BC||950||251|
|Demosthenes||Speeches||300 BC||1,100+ (1,400)||340|
|Greek N.T. Manuscripts||—||50-100 AD||50||5,838|
|Greek New Testament Early Translations||—||—||—||18,524|
When comparing the different ancient manuscripts, the New Testament has the most manuscripts with the smallest gap between when they were written and the originals. Just comparing the Gallic Wars, there are nearly 1000 years between the original work and our earliest surviving work. Assuming the game of telephone has any relevance, the New Testament is more reliable simply because the earliest manuscripts dating within a generation of the original authors. Not to mention the vast volume of manuscripts that can be compared to see their accuracy.
It doesn’t end there. Many of the Greek manuscripts were translated into other languages around that time. This helps get a sense of what the original manuscripts said because you can cross-reference the languages to see what a translator may or may not include. Many of the early church leaders wrote books that reference portions of the new testament so if there is a problem about “was that originally there” then we can check their writing to see if they knew it was in the scriptures back then.
There are other sources that can be linked to the times of the bible. Flavius Josephus was a historian who was born just after the crucifixion and lived during the time of Acts. He had access to the Roman libraries being an important figure. He wrote about some of the details talked about in the new testament such as the Pharisees and Sadducees and the temple in Jerusalem. He also talked about John the baptist’s being killed. It also mentions “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” A letter was found from Mara-Bar Serapion who talks about the death of Socrates, Plate, and “The Wise King of the Jews” who had “the new laws which he enacted” which connects these people to God’s judgment. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian, makes a reference to Jesus in one of his writings in the Annals of Cornelius Tacitus. The worship of Christ is mentioned in Pliny’s Letter to Trajan. These are just a handful of places.
6 The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.Psalms 12:6 ESV