Page 2 - The Tests
Test #1: The number of copies:
Homer's Iliad has a more extensive copy history than nearly any ancient work. 643 copies of the manuscript have been found. Most writings are not nearly as well supported. There are about 10 copies of Caesar's War Commentaries. Seven for Plato's Tetralogies, Twenty of Livy's History of Rome, and so on.
For the New Testament books? There are over 5300 known manuscripts in the original Greek language. Furthermore, there are more than 19,000 ancient New Testament manuscripts in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and other languages. More than 24,000 hand written copies of the New Testament have survived. (See figure 1)
Sir Frederick Kenyon, eminent scholar of textual criticism said this:
"Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principle Greek and Roman writers whose works have come down to us, of Sophocles, of Thucydides, of Cicero, of Virgil; yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of manuscripts, whereas the manuscripts of the New Testament are counted by hundreds, and even thousands."(4)
Test #2: Date of writing of copies:
The second test looks at how close in time our manuscript copies are to the date when the original was written. The closer the dates, the more accurate the manuscript is believed to be. If the time gap between the original and our copy is large, then the accuracy of the manuscript copy is more suspect.
How close to the original are most manuscript copies of ancient writings?
Caesar's War Commentaries were written about 50 BC, yet the earliest manuscript we have today was written in about 800 or 900 AD, a gap of more than 900 years.
Most of the Greek writings have even greater gaps (1000-1500 years) while some Latin writers have smaller gaps.
The shortest time span for any ancient work is probably for Virgil, with about 300 years between the original writings and earliest known copy. To scholars, these huge time gaps are normal and not regarded as a serious problem in interpreting the writings and forming opinions about reliability. There are no preserved copies of any classical work for several hundred years after the date of original composition.
What about the New Testament? It is generally agreed that the New Testament was written from about 47 AD till the 90's AD. The earliest copies of these writings date from 125 AD for portions of the Gospel of John, (the John Rylands papyrus, owned by the University of Michigan, dates from only 35 years after the original book of John was written). The bulk of the New Testament has manuscript copies dating from 175 AD to 250 AD (Bodmer and Chester Beaty papyri, Dublin Ireland)J. Here are major copies within 100 to 150 years of the originals. (See Figure 2)
This stunning evidence cause scholar F.F. Bruce to say:
"The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no-one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. (5)
Test #3: Accuracy of copies:
The next test concerns the occurrence or quantity of errors, omissions, and differences from one copy to another. This measures how much the original text may have been distorted over the centuries.
Dr. Bruce Metzger, Professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton, undertook a study of some ancient writings to measure this amount of distortion in various works.
He measured the copies of three ancient works:
1, The ancient Greek Iliad by Homer, 15,600 lines of text.
2. A Hindu religious writing called the Mahabharata, 250,000 lines of text.
3. The Christian New Testament, 20,000 lines of text.
The texts were divided into segments of 10 lines each to make the comparison easier. Spelling, grammar, and word order differences that did not affect the meaning of the texts were ignored. Any change or difference that affected meaning was counted. The results?
5% of the Iliad's lines were distorted. About 1 in 20 lines. Yet it is rare to hear criticism of the Iliad due to its inaccuracy. The authenticity of the work is assumed. But which version are we reading? No one seems overly concerned.
Over 10% of the Mahabharata has distortions. One out of every ten lines in this religious book, up for grabs!
The New Testament had less than 1/5 of 1% distortion rate! Only 40 lines out of 20,000! Furthermore, in no case did any of these distortions affect any material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice. (6)
Test #4: Quotations in other ancient works
The writings of the early church fathers in the first three centuries AD contain more than 36,000 quotations from New Testament books. If no New Testament manuscripts existed, it would be possible to reconstruct the entire New Testament from these other writings, except for 11 verses.(7) There are no other ancient writings for which such a feat is possible. Even discounting the massive manuscript evidence, the New Testament has more corroborating quotations in other independent ancient writings than any other ancient work. Go to Page 3 --->