Last week we looked at the evidence for the reliability of the Bible with the early Church’s canonization process that demonstrates we can be certain that we have the right books, contrary to cultural spin. We also looked at many reasons Christians reject the Apocrypha and Gnostic books with an emphasis on the dating of those writings. With that in mind it is also important to look at other variables scholars consider when reviewing ancient documents like the Bible, one of the most important is called “textual criticism:”
Textual criticism is a method used by scholars to decipher the meaning of the original texts or autographs from the manuscripts. When originals are lost or no longer in existence it is usually due to the life span of the substance they were written on like papyrus, leather, or other biodegradable materials. However, that does not mean that we cannot determine what the originals said based on the tens of thousands of manuscript copies we have to compare, dating from the fourth century B.C. to the the fifteenth century A.D. for the Old Testament, and the first to the fifteenth centuries A.D. for the New Testament.
With a multitude of available manuscripts scholars have found many minor and a few somewhat major differences between them, but textual criticism allows scholars to eliminate the majority of these differences which are mostly in spelling, grammar, word insertions or deletions by comparing them with each other. The science of textual criticism has given us 100% certainty that what we have in our Bibles today is the original vox (meaning) and over 98% for the Old Testament and 99.5% for the New Testament in verba (words).
Some basic literary terminology in considering the validity of ancient documents:
- Autographs are the original physical writings of the document by the author.
- Manuscripts are copies of the autographs and are in a first class category of witness texts.
- Primary sources are writings that come directly from the event(s) through eyewitnesses and participants.
- Secondary sources are written further away in time from the event(s) and come from second hand information that can no longer be disputed by those who were present or alive at the time.
- Literary works are usually considered primary sources if written within a generation or century of the event.
- The closer the writing is to the event(s) the more reliable the writing becomes.
- The more manuscripts you have, even those with errors, the better chance you have of reconstructing the autograph.
How does the Bible compare to other ancient literature?
Number of manuscript copies:
Note: These numbers increase with ongoing discoveries in archeology. The most commonly used numbers in Christian Apologetics are based on data from about twenty years ago below in black. Thanks to Karl Udy and Dr. Clay Jones from Biola University, the updated numbers as of 2013, are in red:
- In the discipline of philosophy:
- Aristotle’s work has 5 manuscripts dated 1400 years from the events. Updated: 1000 manuscripts dated 1200 years from the events, written 384-322 B.C., with the earliest copy dated A.D. 850
- Plato’s work (Tetralogies) has 210 (previously 7) manuscripts dated 1200 years from the events, written 427-347 B.C., with the earliest copy dated A.D. 900.
- In the discipline of history:
- Pliny the younger’s work (Letters) has 7 (unconfirmed) manuscripts dated 750 years from the events, written A.D. 61-113, with the earliest copy dated A.D. 850.
- Pliny the Elder (Natural History) has 200 (previously 7) manuscripts, dated 900 years from the events, written A.D. 23-79, with the earliest copy dated A.D. 1000.
- Herodotus’ work has 8 manuscripts dated 1300 years from the events. Updated: 109 manuscripts dated 1350 years from the events, written 480-425 B.C., with the earliest copy dated A.D. 900.
- Caesar’s firsthand account of the Gallic Wars has 10 manuscripts, dated 1000 years from the events. Updated: 251 manuscripts, dated 900 years from the events, written 10-44 B.C., with the earliest copy dated A.D. 1000.
- Tacitus’ Greek history (Annals) has 20 manuscripts, dated 1000 years from the events. Updated: 33 manuscripts, dated 750 years from the events, written in A.D. 100, with the earliest copy dated A.D. 850.
- Thucydides’ work has 50 manuscripts, dated 1300 years from the events, written 460-400 B.C., with the earliest copy dated A.D. 900.
- Sophocles’ work (Tragedies) has 193 manuscripts (previously 100), dated 1200 years from the events, written 496-406 B.C., with the earliest copy dated A.D. 900.
- Livy’s work (History of Rome) has 150 manuscripts (previously 19), dated 400 years from the events, written 59 B.C.- A.D. 17, with the earliest copy dated A.D. 400.
- Demosthenes’ Speeches has 340 manuscripts (previously 200), dated 1400 years from the events, written 300 B.C., with the earliest copy dated A.D. 1100.
- In second place is Homer’s Iliad, the history of the Trojan War, has 900 manuscripts, dated 950 years from the events. Updated: 1757 manuscripts, dated 400 years from the events, written 800 B.C., with the earliest copy dated 400 B.C.
- ***In first place is the Bible’s New Testament! The total count for early New Testament Manuscripts available today is over 25,000! (previously 24,000) and Josh McDowell has recently claimed that we have closer to 66,000 with the advent of many discoveries in artifacts, like mummy wrappings, that contain Biblical manuscript fragments. Numbers include:
- 5795 (up from 5366) Greek Manuscripts dated 30 to 150 years from the events, written A.D. 49-95 with the eariest copy dated A.D. 117 (and a few that are possibly dated first century still under review).
- Over 7974 manuscripts in other languages (Armenian, coptic, Gothic, Ethiopian, Syriac, Georgian and Slavic) dated early second century and on (100-150 years)
- Over 10,000 manuscripts in the Latin Vulgate dated from the third century and on (300-350 years)
- The Bible, and the New Testament in particular, has only primary source authors who were eyewitnesses or who were alive at the time of the events.
- The New Testament autographs were complete and in use by the end of the first century A.D. and has surviving manuscripts and fragments dated within 25 to 150 years of the events.
For further information and references on this topic click into this article by Dr. Clay Jones at the Christian Research Institute: The Bibliographical Text Updated.
Examples of some significant manuscripts and fragments on display today:
- John Ryland Fragment
Dated: c. A.D. 117-138
Housed: John Ryland’s Library, Manchester, England
Contents: John 18:31-33, 37-38 (P 52)
Value: Earliest New Testament Manuscript
- Bodmer Papyri
Dated: c. A.D. 200
Contents: Luke, John (P 66, P 75) 1 & 2 Peter & Jude (P 72)
Value: Earliest copy of an Epistle and a Gospel
- Chester Beatty Papyri
Dated: c. A.D. 250
Housed: Dublin, Ireland
Contents: Most of New Testament (P 45, P46, P47)
Value: Earliest copy of most of the New Testament
- Codex Vaticanus
Dated: A. D. 325-350
Contents: Most of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament (B)
Value: Most of the New Testament along with the Greek Old Testament Septuagint (LXX)
- Codex Sinaiticus
Dated: A. D. 340
Housed: Leipzig, Germany
Contents: Half of Old Testament and almost all of New Testament (א – Aleph)
Value: One of the oldest and most accurate manuscripts
- Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus
Dated: A.D. 345
Housed: Paris, France
Contents: Part of the Old Testament and most of New Testament (C)
- Codex Alexandrinus
Dated: A.D. 450
Housed: British Museum
Contents: Almost all of Old Testament and most of New Testament, plus some Apocrypha (A)
Manuscripts like these are available for viewing in museums, libraries and churches around the world and some are personally owned like those Josh McDowell recently purchased. Watch Josh, in this 14 minute interview segment, as he explains the continued archeological finds that support the Bible’s historicity and reliability:
“The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or the other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other book in the world”
Sir Frederick Kenyon, Archeologist, “Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts”
Even if we did not have any of these early manuscripts, could we reconstruct the autographs from other sources? YES
- This practice of reading passages of Scripture (lectionaries) from the New Testament books—began in the sixth century.
- We have 2,135 lectionaries that have been catalogued. If there had been any forgeries or changes to the New Testament writings all of these would have had to be changed as well.
Early Church Father’s Letters
The greatest attestation for the authority of the New Testament is the masses of quotations taken from its early pages by the Church Fathers:
- There are 86,000 quotes from the early Church Fathers.
- There are 36,000 quotations from the New Testament books found in writing before the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
- Even the deniers of the faith quoted from the New Testament books never realizing they were helping to verify authenticity in the future!
- Overall there are estimated to be over one million quotes from early Christians directly from the New Testament. The same books we read today!
“Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by the early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” – Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 126
Are there errors in these early manuscripts?
Skeptics will claim that there are so many errors from the manuscripts being copied over the centuries that they are not reliable, but is that true?
- All of the known manuscripts are 98% in agreement. Only 2% of the texts have errors.
- When literary scholars looked at these so-called errors (2%) they found only the following:
Variations in the texts stem from differences in spelling, word order or the relationship between noun and definite articles—slight variants that are easily recognizable.
- After factoring out minor spelling errors and light variations in word order, there is more than 95% agreement between all of the known manuscripts of the Bible.
- Of the remaining variants (0.5%) none affects any crucial element or teaching of the Christian faith.
Let’s use this example to try to understand the variants:
What would you do if you received this text message from someone you know?
“Y#U HAVE ENHERITED TEN MILL##N DOLLROS”
Would you go collect the money? If you compared your message with the same messages received by others who had already received an inheritance would you ignore it because your text seems to have mistakes in it? No, you would go and collect the money because you would have no doubt about the meaning!
Watch J. Warner Wallace, explain it a little better in this 3 minutes video clip…
- Even with mistakes 100% of the message comes through.
- The more errors to compare in a multitude of manuscripts the more sure you are of the message—AND WE HAVE HAVE OVER 25,000 AND GROWING!
- The New Testament has: More manuscripts, earlier manuscripts and more accurately copied manuscripts than any other book from the ancient world!
- If you can’t trust the New Testament then you can’t trust any ancient book.
“The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established”
Sir Frederick Kenyon, “Bible and Archaeology”
J. Warner Wallace, former Cold-Case Homicide Detective and Author of “Cold Case Christianity” does an excellent job with the New Testament by putting it on trial and confirming, beyond a reasonable doubt, that what we have today is what was in the autographs. Get his book for your library and reference this information. Watch his 26 minute presentation here on the New Testament chain of custody:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. -2 Timothy 3:16-17
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. –2 Peter 1:19-21
Join us next week as we look at more evidence for the reliability of the Bible!
You will not find this material in the public school curriculum even though it is based on solid evidence and grounded in research. It is ironic that following the evidence to where it leads stops at the door of our public schools as they will not let a “Divine footprint” in! Join us as we examine evidence for Christianity and learn how to become a thoughtful defender and ambassador of your faith.
Click into the resource page of this website to view many of the top Christian thinkers and apologists along with some of their work; connecting to these types of resources is essential in your Christian growth.
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