a. Multiplicity of copies
Compared to other Ancient literature, the New Testament has an unprecedented multiplicity of copies that are still available today. This is of utmost importance, as the more copies agree with each other, especially if they come from different geographical areas, the more the original document can be figured out. Also several of these copies of parts of the New Testament date from a couple of generations from the originals. Compared to other ancient literature, most earliest surviving copies date 5 to 10 centuries after their originals. This is quite significant! Only the New Testament can be traced so closely from its originals!
Besides these Greek documents, several translations of the gospels can be found in a variety of other languages like Coptic, Latin and Syriac, all dating from a relatively early time. Other secondary translations like Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian and Gothic dating from a later time period are available as well.
Studying this abundance of available copies, Geisler concluded: “The importance of the sheer number of manuscript copies cannot be overstated. As there are no known extant (currently existing) original manuscripts of the Bible. Fortunately, however, the abundance of manuscript copies makes it possible to reconstruct the original with virtually complete accuracy.” Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986, p. 386.
Question: Why is it possible to reconstruct the original writings of the New Testament with virtually complete accuracy?
b. Comparison with other ancient writings
You may wonder how do other ancient writings compare to the New Testament. To make it a bit easier to grasp the difference between the two, we have created a chart indicating their earliest copies found and the time gap between their original and their earliest copies found.
|Author||Writings||Date Written||Earliest Copies||Time Gap||Number of Copies|
|Caesar||Gallic Wars||100 – 44 B.C.||c. 900 A.D.||c. 1000 years||10|
|Demosthenes||384 – 321 B.C.||c. 1100 A.D.||c. 1400 years||200|
|Josephus||The Jewish War||37 – 100 A.D.||c. 900 A.D.||c. 800 years||9|
|Homer||Iliad||9th Century B.C.||c. 400 B.C.||c. 400 years||643|
|Herodotus||The Histories of Herodotus||485 – 430 B.C.||c. 900 A.D.||c. 1300 years||8|
|Livy||History of Rome||64 B.C. – 17 A.D.||c. 300 A.D. (partial) c. 900 A.D. (mostly)||c. 300 years c. 900 years||1 partial 19 copies|
|Plato||Dialogues||428 – 347 B.C.||c. 900 A.D.||c. 1300 years||7|
|Pliny the Elder||Natural History||23 – 79 A.D.||c. 850 A.D.||c. 800 years||7|
|Tacitus||Annals of Imperial Rome||55 – 118 A.D.||c. 1100 A.D.||c. 1000 years||20|
|Thycydides||History of the Peloponnesian War||455 –400 B.C.||c. 900 A.D.||c. 1300 years||8|
|The New Testament||Matthew to Revelation||50 – 100 A.D.||c. 114 (fragments) c. 200 (books) c. 250 (most of N.T.) c. 325 (complete N.T.)||c. 50 years c. 100 years c. 150 years c. 225 years||5664|
There seems to be no comparison between other ancient writings and the New Testament. 300 to 1400 years elapsed before copies are found of the original manuscripts. This is a long gap between the writing of those ancient classics and their existing copies! In contrast copies of part of the New Testament can be traced as early as 50 years from their originals. This is like current news headlines compared to any other ancient manuscript!
Also 7 (like Plato’s Dialogues) to 643 (Homer’s Iliad) number of copies are to be found for these ancient documents. In fact most ancient manuscripts have less than 10 existing copies compared to the New Testament’s 5664 copies and climbing. The New Testament is by far the most thoroughly documented manuscript from the past with thousands of copies making the reconstruction of its originals child play.
Question: Which ancient manuscript has the most credibility and why?
c. The earliest evidence
The earliest copies of parts of the New Testament are fragments of papyrus that grew freely in the marshes of the Nile Delta in Egypt. As of now, 99 pieces of papyrus containing passages or books of the New Testament have been found.
“The most significant to come to light are the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, discovered about 1930. Of these, Beatty Biblical Papyrus number one contains portions of the four gospels and the book of Acts, and it dates from the third century. Papyrus number two contains large portions of eight letters of Paul, plus portions of Hebrews, dating to about the year 200. Papyrus number three has a sizeable section of the book of Revelation, dating from the third century.
Another group of important papyrus manuscripts was purchased by a Swiss bibliophile, M. Martin Bodmer. The earliest of these, dating from about 200, contains about two-thirds of the gospel of John. Another papyrus, containing portions of the gospels of Luke and John, dates from the third century.” Lee Stroebel. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998. p. 61.
However, the earliest copy we posses today contains parts of chapter 18 from the apostle John’s gospel. It has 5 verses in total, 3 on one side and 2 on the other side. It was purchased around 1920 in Egypt and remained unnoticed with similar papyri parts. In 1934, a man named Roberts, sorting through these papyri at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, recognized it. It was concluded that this fragment goes as far back as 100 A.D. Adolf Deissmann was certain that it goes back to at least the reign of emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) and emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.)
This is significant, as this fragment from the Nile was far from Ephesus where the gospel of John probably was originally written. This confirms that the gospel of John couldn’t have been written much later than 100 A.D., if not earlier. In fact to have copies made going as far as Egypt, the originals should have been written way before this!
Question: What does the earliest copy of part of John’s gospel prove about the date the original gospel was written?
d. Other evidences
Besides papyrus, we do have a wealth of manuscripts copied on parchment. Parchments were made from skins of antelope, cattle, goats and sheep. There are uncial manuscripts, more than 300 of them written in all capital Greek letters, dating as early as the third century. The two most renown of them are the Codex Vaticanus (325-350 A.D.), located in the Vatican library and containing most of the Bible and the Codex Sinaiticus (350 A.D.), located in the British museum, containing the complete New Testament.
There are also the minuscules, a writing more cursive in nature which emerged roughly around 800 A.D. We do have more than 2,800 of them.
Ancient literature was rarely translated into other languages. It isn’t so for the New Testament manuscripts. Latin and Syriac translations of the New Testament started to be made around 150 A.D. More than 15,000 copies have been found. Many Coptic translations were also found dating from the 3rd and 4th century. Latin translations (more than 8,00 of them) from the 4th to 13th century circulated in Europe and North Africa. Other translations can be found in Armenian (400 A.D.), Gothic (4th century), Georgian (5th century), Ethiopic (6th century) and Nubian (6th century).
Besides these we also have a multitude of lectionaries dating from the 6th to 8th centuries. They contain all of the New Testament many times over. Also whole New Testament passages were quoted by early church fathers. Clement quoted more than 2,406 texts from the New Testament; Eusebius 5,176; Hippolytus 1,378; Irenaeus 1,819; Justin Martyr 330; Origen 17, 992; Tertulian 7, 258.
Sir David Dalrymple was considering the large amount of New Testament evidence when someone asked him, “Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries? After a great deal of investigation Dalrymple concluded: “Look at those books. You remember the question about the New Testament and the Fathers? That question roused my curiosity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.” Dalrymple, as cited in Leach, Charles. Our Bible. How We Got It. Chicago: Moody Press, 1898, p. 35, 36.
e. Examining the errors
Some wonder if errors have occurred among the copied manuscripts. And yes variations are found among these documents. Under any circumstance it would have been difficult to copy faded manuscripts where parts of the ink would have flaked away. Inattentiveness could have crept in as well. However what impact has these variants on the original text?
Sometimes the order of words was shifted. In the English language the impact would be disastrous. If I write “I ate an apple” and I copied “An apple ate me” the meaning would be drastically different. The sequence of words is of great importance in the English language. However the Greek language is completely different. Greek is an inflected language while English is not. This means that one word has the function of the subject regardless where it stands in the sentence. Unlike English, changing words around in the Greek language has no bearing to the meaning of the sentence.
We also can find some variations in spelling, but all of these variants are inconsequential to the meaning of the text.
We can conclude with what Dr. Bruce Metzger said to Lee Stroebel: “We can have great confidence in the fidelity with which this material has come down to us, especially compared with any other ancient literary work.” Lee Stroebel. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998. p. 63.
Question: Does the multiplicity of the New Testament copies contribute to the reliability of the original content of the New Testament books? Why or why not?