Is the New Testament Picture of Jesus Reliable?

Author: BibleAsk Team

The Reliability of the New Testament of Jesus

The New Testament picture of Jesus is reliable due to the amazing preservation of the New Testament books. And it can be appreciated best by comparing the evidence for their authenticity with that available for the works produced by the classical writers of antiquity. Let’s read the comments of the textual critics:

F. H. A. Scrivener (1813-91) one of the greatest textual critics of the past stated: “As the New Testament far surpasses all other remains of antiquity in value and interest, so are the copies of it yet existing in manuscript and dating from the fourth century of our era downwards, far more numerous than those of the most celebrated writers of Greece or Rome. Such as have been already discovered and set down in catalogues are hardly fewer than two thousand [more than five thousand now]; and many more must still linger unknown in the monastic libraries of the East. On the other hand, manuscripts of the most illustrious classic poets and philosophers are far rarer and comparatively modern. We have no complete copy of Homer himself prior to the thirteenth century, though some considerable fragments have been recently brought to light which may plausibly be assigned to the fifth century; while more than one work of high and deserved repute has been preserved to our times only in a single copy. Now the experience we gain from a critical examination of the few classical manuscripts that survive should make us thankful for the quality and abundance of those of the New Testament (1833, 3-4).”

F. F. Bruce, who served as professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, stated: “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. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians.

The New Testament in Comparison with Other Ancient Works

Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works:

For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 BC) there are several extant MSS [manuscripts], but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day.

Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC – AD 17), only thirty-five survive, these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century.

Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100), only four and a half survive.

Of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depend entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh.

The extant MSS of his minor works Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania all descend from a codex of the tenth century.

The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to C. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era.

The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 480-425 BC). Yet, no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals (1960, 15-17).”

Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) of Princeton Theological Seminary stated: “The most astonishing thing about the manuscripts of the New Testament is their great number: as has already been intimated, quite two thousand of them have been catalogued upon the lists–-a number altogether out of proportion to what antiquity has preserved for other ancient books” (1898, 28).

John Warwick Montgomery the noted lawyer, professor and Lutheran theologian stated: “To express skepticism concerning the resultant text of the New Testament books…is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well–attested bibliographically as is the New Testament.”

Therefore, we can fully trust the reliable text of the New Testament.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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