How Do Other Ancient Texts Compare to the New Testament? #10 Post of 2012

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.

  • Boz

    I sense an implied conflation of accuracy and veridicality.
    Of course, in line with the article, I agree that accuracy is comparitively strong.

  • Pingback: How Do Other Ancient Texts Com… ( « Sound Commentary()

  • ggodat

    i thought the MSS copies for The Iliad were on the order of ~700. Have more been discovered?

  • Yes, more of everything in the table has been discovered. That is actually the reason that Clay Jones did his research, to update the numbers.

  • The historical truthfulness of the contents of the NT cannot be assessed using textual criticism. That is an entirely different question.

  • Boz

    I’m glad we are in agreement 🙂

  • There are people that like to point out error’s found in the bible original lasnguage, apparently the greatest number of minor condition in the OT, however apparently some in the NT also.
    Maimonoides (1135-1204) appears to imply there were some freedoms in rewriting portions (undisclosed) of the OT, an interesting presentation about this ‘Scribal and Textual Transmission of the Torah’ is:
    Some seem to believe by saying the bible is Gods inerrent word it means the text, when the bible clearly says the ‘Word’. I take great encouragement being of simpler mind, the word saying it is spiritually discerned, of those with the HS within.

  • Jason Dulle

    Bill, do you have a link to Jones’ article? I would be interested in reading it to get more details.

    For example, is Jones reporting on the first manuscript evidence for a work, or the first substantial manuscript evidence? For example, if the oldest manuscript for Sophocles’ works only contain a few lines, that doesn’t give us a good idea as to when the entire work is attested to. It may be that the majority of the work is not attested to until the 10th century. This is similar to how we have fragments of Matthew’s gospel within 140 years of composition, but our first substantial manuscript of Matthew does not come until the fourth century (if we are only talking about Greek manuscripts).

    This brings up another question. How many of these manuscripts are in the same language as the original composition, and how many are translations? If Jones is including both original language manuscripts and translations into his count for classical works, then the chart should do the same for the NT (your chart only shows the # of Greek manuscripts).

    Knowing this kind of information would allow us to make a better comparison between the NT and these other ancient works.

  • Hi Jason,

    You’ll have to buy the magazine to see the full article. You can get to it here:

  • Jason Dulle

    Thanks Bill. Can you tell me off-hand whether or not the questions I raised are addressed in the article or not? I don’t want to purchase it if I won’t find much more than what you reproduced here.

  • I think he covers some of your questions, but not others. My understanding is the following:

    For example, is Jones reporting on the first manuscript evidence for a work, or the first substantial manuscript evidence?

    I believe that the manuscript does not have to be substantial. It can be a scrap. In the article, he does get into a little more detail about each of the manuscripts, so it may be worthwhile to get the article just for that data.

    How many of these manuscripts are in the same language as the original composition, and how many are translations?

    I believe the manuscripts are all in the same language as originally written. I don’t have the article in front of me, though, so I can’t be 100% sure.

    If you are really interested in this topic, I would definitely buy the article. It will be worth it.

  • Pingback: Did Jesus say he was God??? - Page 830 - Religious Education Forum()

  • Pingback: Evidence for Myth-making | Max Doubt()

  • Pingback: Quora()

  • Marie-Louise

    Hi Jason, I was looking for the source article, like yourself, and found this (free) article:

    Bill, is this your source?