How does the New Testament measure up to other ancient books?

Author: BibleAsk Team


The New Testament stands as one of the most significant and influential works of literature in human history. Comprising the foundational texts of Christianity, it contains the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as the writings of his apostles and early followers. In assessing the credibility of the New Testament today, one crucial aspect to consider is the manuscript evidence that supports its reliability and authenticity.

By examining the number of copies and fragments of ancient manuscripts, scholars can gain insight into the accuracy and preservation of the New Testament texts over time. In this exploration, we’ll delve into the manuscript evidence for the New Testament and compare it to other ancient books, evaluating its credibility and reliability in light of historical and textual criticism.

The Importance of Manuscript Evidence

Manuscript evidence plays a crucial role in assessing the credibility of ancient texts, including religious scriptures, historical documents, and literary works. By examining the extant copies and fragments of ancient manuscripts, scholars can reconstruct the original text, identify variations and discrepancies, and assess the reliability of the transmitted text over time. The number and quality of manuscript copies provide valuable clues about the textual transmission process and the extent to which the surviving manuscripts accurately reflect the content of the original documents.

Comparative Analysis of Manuscript Evidence

In comparing the manuscript evidence for the New Testament to other ancient books, such as classical literature, philosophical treatises, and historical writings, several key factors come into play:

Quantity of Manuscripts

The New Testament boasts an impressive number of manuscript copies and fragments, far exceeding those of many other ancient texts. As of the latest estimates, there are over 5,800 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, ranging from early papyrus fragments to medieval codices and later printed editions. In contrast, many classical works have far fewer surviving manuscripts, with some texts known from only a handful of copies or even a single manuscript. Further, there are over 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages. Therefore, the total number of manuscripts supporting the New Testament is over 24,000.

Time of Manuscripts

The New Testament was written before the close of the First Century. And since Jesus was crucified in A.D. 30., this means that all the books of the New Testament were completed within 70 years and there were many people alive that could have contested the writings.

Geographical Distribution of Manuscripts

The New Testament manuscripts are geographically diverse, with copies and fragments discovered across a wide range of regions, including Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor. This broad distribution indicates the widespread dissemination of the New Testament texts in the ancient world and the transmission of the Christian message to various communities. In contrast, some ancient texts are primarily known from specific regions or cultural centers, reflecting the localized circulation and preservation of those works.

Scholarly Perspectives on New Testament Manuscripts

While differences of opinion exist among scholars regarding specific textual variants and interpretations, there is widespread agreement on the overall credibility of the New Testament as a historically and textually reliable collection of ancient documents. The abundance of manuscript evidence, combined with advances in scholarship and technology, has contributed to a deeper understanding of the New Testament text and its transmission history.

Based only on the manuscripts evidence available, the New Testament stands as the most historically documented piece of ancient literature ever written. And the internal consistency of the New Testament documents is about 99.5% textually pure.

For these reasons, the Bible is the best-selling book of all times. It has been translated into over 800 languages, and reached over 200 countries.  The Bible, and more specifically, the New Testament, stands as the greatest literary achievement the world has ever read.

The New Testament in Relationship with Ancient Books

The New Testament is a book which is made up of different manuscripts. To ascertain its credibility today, we are to find the number of copies from those manuscripts which are currently in possession. The more copies we have the better evidence we have to know if the documents we now have matches the original.

The following chart speaks for itself*:

AuthorDate
Written
Earliest CopyApproximate Time Span between original & copyNumber of CopiesAccuracy of Copies
Lucretiusdied 55 or 53 B.C.1,100 yrs2—-
PlinyA.D. 61-113A.D. 850750 yrs7—-
Plato427-347 B.C.A.D. 9001,200 yrs7—-
Demosthenes4th Cent. B.C.A.D. 1100800 yrs8—-
Herodotus480-425 B.C.A.D. 9001,300 yrs8—-
SuetoniusA.D. 75-160A.D. 950800 yrs8—-
Thucydides460-400 B.C.A.D. 9001,300 yrs8—-
Euripides480-406 B.C.A.D. 11001,300 yrs9—-
Aristophanes450-385 B.C.A.D. 900120010—-
Caesar100-44 B.C.A.D. 9001,00010—-
Livy59 BC-AD 17—-???20—-
Tacituscirca A.D. 100A.D. 11001,000 yrs20—-
Aristotle384-322 B.C.A.D. 11001,40049—-
Sophocles496-406 B.C.A.D. 10001,400 yrs193—-
Homer (Iliad)900 B.C.400 B.C.500 yrs64395%
New
Testament
1st Cent. A.D. (A.D. 50-100)2nd Cent. A.D.
(c. A.D. 130 f.)
less than 100 years560099.5

Conclusion: The Credibility of the New Testament

In conclusion, the New Testament stands out among ancient texts for its wealth of manuscript evidence, spanning a wide chronological range and geographical distribution. The extensive manuscript tradition of the New Testament provides valuable insights into the textual transmission process and the accuracy of the transmitted text over time.

Ultimately, the credibility of the New Testament as a reliable and authentic collection of ancient documents rests on the abundance of manuscript evidence and the scholarly scrutiny applied to its study. As such, the New Testament continues to be a foundational text for Christians and a subject of scholarly inquiry for historians, theologians, and textual critics alike.

Check out our Bible Answers page for more information on a variety of topics.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

Reference:

*Slick M (2008). Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability. CARM.

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