Post Author: Bill Pratt
When considering the trustworthiness of the New Testament (NT) documents, the first question we need to ask is, “Have these documents been accurately transmitted to us since they were originally written?”
In order to answer this question about the textual transmission of documents of the ancient world, historians look at the number of existing manuscript copies (MSS) of the original text and they look at the time gap between the earliest existing MSS and the date when the original document was written. The more MSS, the better we are able to reconstruct the original. The shorter the time gap, the better we are able to reconstruct the original. This is referred to as the bibliographical test.
Christians have pointed out for decades that the NT documents are far superior in both dimensions of the bibliographical test. There are more existing MSS and the time gap for those MSS is the shortest when compared to other documents of ancient history.
Clay Jones, professor at Biola University, has recently updated the data that compares the Greek NT documents (as a group) to other documents of ancient history in an article published in the Christian Research Journal. Below are the results of his research:
|Author||Work||Date Written||Earliest MSS||Time Gap||Number of MSS|
|Homer||Iliad||800 BC||c. 400 BC||400||1757|
|Herodotus||History||480-425 BC||10th C||1350||109|
|Sophocles||Plays||496-406 BC||3rd C BC||100-200||193|
|Plato||Tetralogies||400 BC||AD 895||1300||210|
|Caesar||Gallic Wars||100-44 BC||9th C||950||251|
|Livy||History of Rome||59 BC-AD 17||Early 5th C||400||150|
|Tacitus||Annals||AD 100||AD 850||750-950||33|
|Pliny, the Elder||Natural History||AD 49-79||5th C fragment: 1; Rem. 14-15th C||400||200|
|Thucydides||History||460-400 BC||3rd C BC||200||96|
|Demosthenes||Speeches||300 BC||Some fragments from 1 C BC||1100+||340|
|Greek NT||AD 50-100||AD 130||40||5795|
The table illustrates that the Greek NT does extremely well with both the time gap (40 years) and the number of MSS (5795), as compared to all the other documents in the table. But the situation is even better for the NT because we haven’t yet mentioned all the MSS of the NT in other languages.
Jones reveals that there are over 2000 Armenian, almost 1000 Coptic, 6 Gothic, more than 600 Ethiopian, more than 10000 Latin, more than 350 Syriac, 43 Georgian, and more than 4000 Slavic manuscript copies of the NT.
The only conclusion one can reasonably reach is that we have more confidence in the textual transmission of the NT than in any other document of ancient history. To question the transmission accuracy of the NT texts we have today is to question all of ancient history.