Charges against New Testament Reliability
Some people allege that, because the New Testament (NT) is a “religious” document, it cannot be regarded as historically reliable. Where is the logic in that claim? It really doesn’t matter what an ancient document is about—it can still give insight into historical realities. Historians even study ancient sales receipts found on shards of pottery from trash dumps buried centuries ago. [NEWSFLASH! Historian caught dumpster diving in first century trash heap. Charges of identity theft being investigated!]
Other critics discount the NT on account of “bias.” Once again, this makes no sense. If the New Testament is to be eliminated because its authors were biased, then what are we to make of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, or better yet, of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence? Do those authors lose their historical credibility because they were biased? Are they dismissed as undependable witnesses of history because they were passionate about the matters of which they wrote?
And the assaults on the reliability of the NT go on. Some have charged the authors of the NT with collusion to create credibility for their new religion. This charge is erroneous, as well, in that the NT is not one collaborative document put together by committee, either in the first century after Christ or at any later time by any church or political councils. The NT consists of twenty-seven distinct historical documents written by at least eight different authors from different locations around the Mediterranean world over a period of forty to fifty years. [And as far as we know, the internet wasn’t even in place yet to facilitate collusion between the NT authors during the first century, anyway! No fax machines either!]
Show Me the Originals
Still other detractors challenge the NT on the grounds that we supposedly have no idea what the original documents said, since none of the twenty-seven originals is in existence any longer. Yes, it is correct that none of the first handwritten NT documents have survived. They were almost certainly written on papyrus or vellum—materials that would have disintegrated through handling and simple exposure to the elements. But the same holds true of the documents of Herodotus, Homer, Thucydides, Julius Caesar, or anyone else from ancient times. Critics accept them without the originals.
A Matter of Numbers
Case in point—the whole world is willing to accept as reliable the 643 existing manuscript copies of the works of Homer (the oldest of which is from 400 years after the time of Homer). By the way, the 643 copies of Homer is the greatest number of surviving copies by any ancient author … with the exception of the surviving ancient manuscript copies of the texts of the NT documents (the oldest of which dates to within forty years of the original!).
One would think that if there were a greater number of copies of, say, the biblical Gospel of John than of Homer’s Iliad, and if the John copies were centuries closer to the date of original writing than the Homer copies were to the date of their original writing, then John would be considered to have better historical support than does Homer. Well, surprise, surprise! That is precisely the case!
To quote Dr. Richard Howe of Southern Evangelical Seminary, it’s almost embarrassing how much more manuscript evidence there is for the New Testament than for any other ancient historical writings. Check this out. Modern scholars have access to over 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts and fragments of New Testament writings! (Of course, you know that the NT was originally written in Greek.) Then, in addition, there are over 10,000 Latin manuscripts and over 9,000 ancient manuscript copies in Syriac, Slavic, Arabic, etc.
Consider the implications of these numbers. If anyone even wanted to tamper with the text of the New Testament on purpose, how would they be able to influence the same changes in so many documents in the possession of so many different people in so many different places and in so many different languages?
Yeah, But What About All the Copyist Errors in Bible Manuscripts?
What if I only have ten manuscript copies of an ancient document to compare, and what if there are some slight variations in word order, spelling, or even word choice in those ten? Can I figure out from ten copies what the original must have said? Possibly. Maybe even probably. This isn’t a hypothetical case. Historians generally accept the Gallic Wars written by Julius Caesar on the basis of only ten manuscript copies, the oldest of which dates to about one thousand years after Caesar’s original.
Now in the case with NT manuscripts, we have hundreds, even thousands of ancient copies with which we can compare spelling differences or slight word order differences or even minor differences of phrasing. With so many, we can certainly determine quite precisely what the original document said!
One Final Fact
Thousands of much earlier manuscripts of the NT have been discovered since the time when the King James Version of the Bible was released in 1611. Today, you can go to the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Muenster, Germany, and find on microfilm over ninety percent of the Greek manuscripts ever found—thousands of copies, covering the entire text of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Compare them, and you will still not find any theology-shaking differences between this massive collection and the manuscripts known to the King James Bible committee four centuries ago.
As these facts show, we can be very sure that the New Testament we have today, and all it says about Jesus Christ, is the same as the documents originally penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, and Peter over nineteen hundred years ago. The New Testament is historically reliable—another reason why we can believe with confidence in Jesus Christ!
For Further Reading: