New Testament Manuscript Evidence: How We Can Know the Bible is Accurate

The question any Christian, at some point in their life, should be asking is:  How do we know that the Bible is what it says it is?  Fully answering that question takes a measure of faith.  However, there are certain things we CAN know.  This article is about those things.

A.  We Are Currently Reading the 2nd Century New Testament

A manuscript is a document that is written by hand.  In this context, I mean it specifically as an ancient document from a unique source that was written by hand.  In the ancient world, there were obviously no printing presses.  Everything had to be copied down by the work of a scribe, or some other literate person.  This heightens the chance for differences in translation.  Taking into account the entirety of the ancient manuscripts, there are about 150,000 variations.

1. An Explanation of Variations

The common misconception, and a favored critique of the Bible, is that such variants render the New Testament void of truth besides any abstract spiritual or moral ideals.  Specifically, the Bible says writers of the Gospels claimed they saw Jesus rise from the dead.  With all the variations over the next two thousand years, how can you possibly know that the writers really ever claimed such a thing?

The truth is, of the 150,00 variations, 99.9% of them have no affect on the New Testament at all.  That is, the differences consist of something similar to one scribe writing “Christ Jesus” while another wrote “Jesus Christ”.  Many differences are simply missing a insignificant word.  When the evidence is all on the table, there are only 50 significant variations (the number 50 will become more significant a bit later on). 

Even with these fifty variations, no Christian doctrine is changed.  The differences aren’t that one manuscript says that Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek” and another says, “Slap your enemy on the other cheek”.  The differences aren’t  that significant.

The principle used in textual analysis is this:  Just as the number of scribes increases the possibility of error, so does the ability to find the true meaning of the text.  Even with the variations are significant, none of them affect any Christian doctrine.

2.  The New Testament Manuscripts are Supremely Reliable

“Reliability” as far as any ancient manuscript scholar is concerned is decided by number of manuscripts and how close in time they are to the original writing.  For instance, the earliest manuscripts of the writings of Plato, which the vast majority of scholars consider reliable, are 1200 years after Plato put quill to papyrus, and we only have seven copies of them.  Let’s compare other works of antiquity (carm.org’s chart is great in this regard). 

  • Lucretius              1200 years       2 copies
  • Pliny                    750 years      7 copies
  • Plato                   1200 years    7 copies
  • Demosthenes   800 years      8 copies
  • Herodotus         1300 years    8 copies
  • Ceasar               1000 years    10 copies
  • Tacitus               1000 years    20 copies
  • Aristotle             1400 years    49 copies

These writings are considered “reliable” in that they accurately reflect the original writings.  Now, let’s look at the New Testament.

  •  New Testament       Less than 100 years         5600 copies

Dr. Benjamin Warfield concludes, “If we compare the present state of the text of the New Testament with that of no matter what other ancient work, we must…declare it marvelously exact.”

Dr. Norman Geisler has some other points for our consideration.  The average secular work of antiquity hangs on by only a handful of manuscripts, while the New Testament boasts thousands.  The average length of time between ancient manuscripts is 1000 years.  However, the New Testament has fragments within a generation of the writers, whole books within one hundred years, the majority of the New Testament within 200 years, and the entire New Testament within 250 years. 

This is unprecedented as far as ancient scholarship goes and the only conclusion can be that the New Testament is supremely reliable.

B.  Our Current New Testament is what the Original Authors Intended to Say

Part of the reason we know this goes hand in hand with the process of textual analysis as well.  For instance, if there are several manuscripts of an original work that I don’t have, and one of the sentences in each manuscript reads like this:

Manuscript #1:  Jesus Chris died for our sins

Manuscript #2:  Jsus Christ died for or sins

Manuscript #3:  Jesus Christ died our sins

Manuscript #4:  Jesus Christ died for sins

Manuscript #5:  Jesus Christ dide for our sin. 

Comparing these different manuscripts, can I come to an accurate conclusion of what the original author intended to say?  Of course I can.  Now, this is a simplistic example but the over 99% of the textual variations are solved in this way.  Not only can the differences be reconciled, but the original intent of the author can be discovered as well. 

1.  Overwhelming Evidence

In addition to the already mentioned 5600 Greek manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament, we have 10,000 thousand Latin Vulgates and 9,300 other early versions which gives us more than 24,000 early New Testament manuscripts  (McDowell’s Evidence That demands a Verdict, vol.1, 1972 pgs.40-48; and Time, January 23, 1995, pg.57).  Remember, of these thousands of manuscripts, there are only fifty major variations.  That astoundingly accurate!

But how credible are these manuscripts?  As has been previously mentioned, we have many early Greek manuscripts.  What dates have been attributed to the earliest ones and what do they contain? 

Important
Manuscript
Papyri
Contents

Date
Original Written

MSS
Date

(John Rylands
Fragment)3
John 18:31-33,37-38 circa
96 A.D.
circa
125
A.D.
   

(Chester Beatty Papyrus)
Rom. 5:176:3,5-14; 8:15-25, 27-35, 379:32; 10:1-11, 22, 24-33, 3514:8,915:9, 11-33; 16:1-23, 25-27; Heb.; 1 & 2 Cor., Eph., Gal., Phil., Col.; 1 Thess. 1:1,9-10; 2:1-3; 5:5-9, 23-28 50’s-70’s circa
200
A.D.
   

(Bodmer Papyrus)
John 1:16:11,3514:26; fragment of 14:29-21:9

70’s

circa
200
A.D.
   
P67  Matt. 3:9,15; 5:20-22, 25-28   circa
200
A.D.
   

In addition to these, we have since found a fragment of Matthew 26 called the Magdelene manuscript that has been dated 65/66 AD. 

Considering the comparison between the New Testament and secular works, we must conclude that the New Testament is amazingly preserved.  No other ancient writing can make the claim to be even close in time span as the New Testament.  The New Testament manuscripts are mostly from 150-200 years after the original writings with one less than 100 years and one coexistent fragment. 

Although we don’t have the originals, the sheer volume and dates of the New Testament manuscripts makes the evidence overwhelming.

2.  Logical Deduction

Secularists are fond of accusing Christians of being forced to abandon all reason in order to believe in the Deity of Jesus Christ (as evidenced by his Resurrection).  Let’s see if this is true.

Through the Magdelene fragment we know that Matthew was written in the life time of the eyewitnesses.  In fact, we know that Matthew himself was an eyewitness.  How?  If someone wrote a book about an event that happened thirty years ago, claiming to be an eyewitness, but was not, wouldn’t there be an uproar among the actual eyewitnesses?  He’d be labeled a liar and his book would be soundly discredited, no one would bother to have it copied.  Remember that copying a book in the first century, especially one as long as Matthew, was an arduous, time consuming and expensive task.  Churches, or home congregations, would have had to literally save up for the manuscript of a book they wanted to have, so they would have chosen wisely.  Would they really have chosen to spend the money on a book who’s facts, and the integrity of the author, was unreliable?

So, we have a book written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, written by an eyewitness.  Matthew not only claimed to have witnessed the life and works of Jesus, but claimed that many others were there as well and named those individuals.  If someone wrote a book naming you as an individual who had witnessed certain event, or participated in said events, and you in fact did NOT, wouldn’t you speak up?  Wouldn’t this also discredit Matthew’s Gospel? 

Specifically, Matthew wrote that He witnessed a man who everyone saw crucified rise from the dead.  And then, another eyewitness, John, wrote the same thing.  Another man, Mark, who was the historian of another eyewitness, Peter, wrote the same thing.  Finally, a man who claimed to have fully investigated the matter, including interviewing eyewitnesses, Luke, wrote a book claiming to have seen Jesus rise from the dead. 

In a modern court room, wouldn’t the judge accept the eyewitness testimony of four people?  If four men pointed to another man who was under arrest for bank robbery and said, “This is the man whom we saw rob the bank!”, wouldn’t that man be convicted?  The Gospels tell us that, at one point, Jesus was in a crowd of five hundred people after his Resurrection.  What about the testimony of five hundred people?  Would a judge accept that? 

Why Didn’t the Jews Prove the Apostles Wrong?

That a Galilean carpenter named Jesus had been crucified for blasphemy was common knowledge in Jerusalem.  The Jewish ruling class, the Sadducees, who had paid Judas to betray Jesus, would have watched the fulfillment of their investment. 

Once the apostles had started to go around proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, why didn’t the Sadducees prove them wrong?  They knew where Jesus had been buried.  Why didn’t they grab His body, parade it through the streets, and kill Christianity right then?  It would have been that easy.

Would the Apostles Die for What They Knew Was a Lie?

The eyewitness accounts of men aren’t much good if they recant under cross-examination.  Yet, the Apostles held onto their accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection under the most harsh of cross examinations; gruesome death (all accept one was executed for not recanting the Way). 

Let’s say that a doctor, a tax collector and some fishermen, were to some how over power an entire Roman guard unit, twenty to fifty of the most well trained soldiers in the world (think ancient day Army Rangers); Roman soldiers were often executed for failing their posts so they would have fought to the death.  After over powering these soldiers, the apostles then rolled back a boulder that would have at least weighed a ton, and stole Jesus’ body.  They then perpetrated a hoax in order to . . . die? 

What money or power did they gain by lying about Jesus’ Resurrection?  It seemed they only gained death.  Wouldn’t at least ONE of them have recanted, being unwilling to die for what they knew was a lie?  Once that individual recanted, wouldn’t the Sadducees have then spread this recantation far and wide and have killed Christianity?  It would have been that easy.

Conclusion

Many Western minds assume that because there were no newspapers, CNN, or internet two thousand years ago, anything could have been fabricated and such simple minds would have accepted it.  These were not the Dark Ages, this was the era of the Greek philosopher, the skeptic and the stoics.  The Pharisees would memorize the entire Old Testament. These were not simpletons.  

Through manuscript evidence, and textual analysis, we know that at least one eyewitness testimony (Matthew) was written in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, within about thirty-five years of Christ’s death.  We also know that three other men, either eyewitnesses themselves, or forming accounts based on eyewitness testimony, corroborated Matthew’s account.  Through the sheer volume of manuscripts we know that Matthew, and the rest of the New Testament, has been unchanged since then.  Through logical deduction we know that it would have been easy to prove the apostles wrong if the Sadducees had just been able to find Jesus’ body from the tomb they put it in or had been able to get one of the apostles to recant (and boy did they try).  Would any man really die for what he knew to be a lie?

The only logical conclusion, then, is that these men actually did see Jesus rise from the dead.

 

Note:  This is by no means exhaustive.  I know that I have left out many manuscripts and sources of New Testament reliability, including the letters of the early church fathers.  Also, there are probably many arguments and explanations left unsaid.  I want to use this post as a jumping off point that I can later use to further explore the evidence for the New Testament.  Another one of the good resources I used is here.

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7 Comments on “New Testament Manuscript Evidence: How We Can Know the Bible is Accurate”

  1. krissmith777 Says:

    Great post!

    Many Christian Bashers always pull out the “The-Bible-Has-Been-changed-many-times” without any credible proof.

    However, the fact that the Bible has remained essentially unchanched is confirmed by the facts.

    The more ancient New Testament manuscripts such as the Codex Alexandrinus, the Codex Vaticanus, the Codex Sinaticus as well as several ancient fragments show that the New Testament has not changed.

    What variations exist do not change doctrine and are mostly superficial.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls also show that the Old Testament has also remained essentially the same.

  2. Prof Says:

    “God’s existence is one of my most basic presuppositions. Meaning, that I use my belief in God’s existence to interpret the evidence which I recieve. For instance, as I’m sure you realized of any Christian, it doesn’t matter how much empirical evidence for evolution you give me, I’m just not convinced.”

    I find it funny that you are claiming your minority YEC beliefs are the same for all christians. It could be a misunderstanding of your sentence structure.

    At least your honest enough about your closemindedness. But really, all there was a big long screed of “I am a Christian, because I am a Christian.”

    If you were raised Muslim, you would be saying the same thing about allah. If you were raised Pastafarian you would be claiming the same thing about the Flying Spagetti Monster.

  3. dwilli58 Says:

    At least your honest enough about your closemindedness. But really, all there was a big long screed of “I am a Christian, because I am a Christian.”

    Hey “Prof,” please don’t “project” here! You slam Eric for being closed minded, but it is you who are closed minded! Junk science fairy tales are your God, which is why you are so blind to your own issues, or are you? You know, don’t you, “Prof,” that you rant on about these issues simply because you aren’t certain about your religion, naturalism! But at least you are up on the new terms: Pastafarian, Spaghetti Monster etc. I am impressed…NOT!

  4. Ray Says:

    I was raised Roman Catholic, but putting my faith in critical review, I am inquiring as to why post-early Christians needed a triune godhead. Could they not have foreseen the confusion and blasphemy this makes for anyone who wants to worship Our God who said, “I am the LORD your GOD, you shall not set any gods or idols before me.” Was satan the author of this confusion? Does it make spiritual sense to believe in a 3 in 1 Godhead? And so more than 99% of the Christian world “prays” to our LORD and Savior, The Holy ONE of Israel, and interjects “in the Name of our lord, Jesus Christ, or Mary, or prophets such as Muhammed, the apostles and all the saints.” What a belittlement of God’s power and authority!!! I no longer pray “through or to” the god of the New Testament because of this apparent abomination and invite others to see if their faith substitutes Jesus for the LORD of the Universe. I for one am through with such deceptive practices and will not put my faith and salvation on writers who can’t agree on Jesus’s Davidic lineage, their errant justifications in Isaiah 53, and their contradictions of the 4 gospels (62) concerning events from last supper to resurrection. Remember satan is the author of confusion and maybe all the slimy beast wants is for a majority of souls to pray to other than the Supreme and Sovereign LORD GOD. Am I a believer? You betcha – In the One and Only True God who shares His throne with no one and is the Savior of my soul.

  5. Eric Kemp Says:

    Ray

    Thank you for the comment. You have a very interesting position there.

    Can I ask you some questions so that I may understand your position better?

    Are you saying there is no plurality in God? As in, the Trinity does not exist? And if so, are you saying that Jesus did not rise from the dead? Also, could you be more specific with these contradictions in the Gospels?

  6. Putzamaloo Says:

    There are lots of triple deities. As christianity is made up of the religions that came before, its unsurprising when they take ideas from each other.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triplism

  7. Eric Kemp Says:

    Troll

    So because Christianity has a Trinity, and other religions who came before or after, also use three, therefore Christianity is false? Come now, you’re gonna have to do better than that.


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