Bible & Theology

The Reliability of the New Testament, Part 1: Date and The Bibliographical Test

Jia was sitting in the park reading the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Ever since she had become a Christian, this was her favorite part of the New Testament. She had read the gospel of John so many times that she could quote the resurrection story by memory.

As Lee walked past, he saw what she was reading. “Jia, why do you read that book so much? It is no better than our ancient Chinese legends!”

Jia protested, “This is more than a legend; this is God’s Word! The stories in this book were written by people who spent years with Jesus. This book tells me what it was like to hear Jesus teach and to see his miracles. I love this book!”

Lee smiled, “I’m sure it is interesting, but the gospels were written long after Jesus died. By the time the New Testament was written, many of the stories of Jesus’ life had been changed. We can’t rely on that book for history. It is a religious book, not a book of history! You can have ‘faith’ in your book if you choose, but you can’t know that it is true.”

“I disagree!” Jia replied. “I am resting my eternal future on this book because I know it is true. Can I show you some things that I have learned to support the reliability of this book? Yes, I have faith, but my faith is grounded on a foundation of historical truth.”

How would you respond to Lee? Can we trust the stories in the Bible? How can we know these stories are true?

The Date of the New Testament

Some people say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere in your faith.” But even if you sincerely believe that a glass of poison is water, you will still die from the poison. It is not enough to believe; your faith must be based on truth.

We must study the general argument for Christianity and build a case for Christianity, block by block, or premise by premise. But we have to demonstrate that all of the premises are true. If they are true, the conclusion will be true. We have to show that they are true, beginning with the first premise or building block.

What would happen to our case for Christianity if someone proved that the New Testament was NOT historically reliable?

If the New Testament is not historically reliable, we are followers of a false religion. Is the New Testament historically reliable? In this lesson, we will study three common objections to the reliability of the New Testament and then answer these objections.

Objection 1: The New Testament was written 100–200 years after the life of Christ. Many of the stories in the New Testament are myths.

Skeptics say that the New Testament was written 100-200 years after Jesus’ death. During these decades, the stories of Jesus’ life were communicated orally rather than in written form. This means that the stories could have been changed. Skeptics who make this objection say that many of the stories included in the gospels are myths that developed during this 100-200-year period.

Response to Objection 1: The New Testament was complete within sixty years of Jesus’ life. That was not enough time for the story of Christ to be distorted into myth.

There is strong evidence that the New Testament was written by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. At the time the gospels were written, there were many people living who witnessed the events described. These people would know if the stories were not true!

We have good evidence that the New Testament was complete within sixty years of the death of Jesus. Actually, most New Testament books were written within about thirty years of the death of Christ. Here are four pieces of evidence to support our response to objection 1.

 

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John Rylands Papyrus

1. Manuscripts have been found from the early second century. The John Rylands Papyrus is a fragment of the gospel of John that was found in Egypt. This copy of John was dated to A.D. 125. In order for the John Rylands Papyrus to reach Egypt and be copied by A.D. 125, the original manuscript must have been written earlier.

 

2. Early church fathers such as Clement and Ignatius were quoting New Testament books by A.D. 100. This shows that these books were circulated by this time.

3. Most of the New Testament must have been written before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army in A.D. 70 because there is no reference to this historical event in the New Testament, as having already happened. The destruction of Jerusalem had a major impact on the Christian church. To write the New Testament after A.D. 70 without mentioning the destruction of Jerusalem would be like writing a history of twentieth century England without mentioning World War II.

4. The book of Acts and all of Paul’s letters were written prior to Paul’s death in the mid-60’s. Acts 1:1-2 shows that the Gospel of Luke was written before the book of Acts. So the Gospel of Luke is even earlier than the mid-60’s.

Conclusion: The New Testament accounts were written by eyewitnesses within a few decades of the life of Jesus.

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The Reliability of the New Testament: The Bibliographical Test

We have determined the approximate time that the New Testament was written, but do we know what was originally written? Some skeptics argue that the books in our New Testament are different than the original gospels. If we do not have what was originally written, then we cannot trust the New Testament.

Three major tests are used to determine the reliability of ancient documents. These three tests are used on any piece of ancient literature. These tests help us verify the historical reliability of the text we are reading. The first test is the Bibliographical Test.

The Bibliographical Test examines how well a document has been preserved. From the Bibliographical Test, we know whether or not we have the text of the original document. There are three aspects of the Bibliographical Test:

A. Timespan. This measures the number of years between the original document and our earliest surviving copies. The shorter the time span, the more we can trust our copies.

B. Number. This measures the number of existing handwritten copies of a document. The greater the number of surviving copies, the more certain we are of the original text.

C. Quality. This measures how similar the existing manuscripts are. This examines the differences between the handwritten copies we possess today. The fewer differences between copies, the more certain we are of the original text.

These measurements answer the objections of skeptics who argue that we cannot trust our copies of the New Testament. Let’s look at a second objection by the skeptics.

Objection 2: We cannot trust our copies of the New Testament because there is too much time between the original manuscripts and the earliest surviving copies.

This objection points out the truth that the more time between the original and a copy, the more likelihood of mistakes. But the objection erroneously asserts that there was a long time between the New Testament and the earliest copies; and that, therefore, we cannot trust our New Testament.

A. TIMESPAN

Our response to this objection looks at the short timespan between the original writing of the New Testament and our earliest surviving copies.

Response to Objection 2: The timespan for the New Testament is shorter than for any other piece of literature from the ancient world.

The timespan between the originals and the earliest existing copies for most classical Greek works is about 1,000 years. For example, there is 950 years between the original writing of Tacitus’ Annals and our earliest copy (of the second half of it). By contrast, the time span for most of the New Testament books is around 150 years.

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This timeline shows that most of the New Testament was written within thirty years of Jesus’ ascension. We have manuscript copies of most New Testament books from about 150 years after they were first written. Compare this to some other famous Greek classics.

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Notice the small timespan between the original New Testament documents and our earliest copies. No one argues that we cannot trust Plato or Caesar. If that literature survived 1,000 years without corruption, why should we think that the New Testament was corrupted during the 150-year span?

Historians accept other ancient documents as reliable after 1,000 years. But skeptics unreasonably reject the New Testament as unreliable, even though the New Testament passes tests for reliability much better than other ancient documents.

Objection 3: Even if there is a short time between the originals and the first copies, there are too many differences among the surviving New Testament manuscripts for us to know what was in the original. We have too many conflicting manuscripts.

This is a common objection to the reliability of the New Testament. Based on this objection, Mormons say that we need the Book of Mormon; and Muslims say that we need the Quran.

How would you answer a Mormon who says that we need the Book of Mormon because the New Testament is unreliable?

Response to Objection 3: The vast number of surviving New Testament manuscripts and the small number of conflicts show that we can trust the New Testament. The “Number” and “Quality” aspects of the Bibliographical Test will demonstrate this.

B. NUMBER

The aspect of number addresses the number of early manuscripts available for comparison. The more manuscripts we have, the closer we can get to the original manuscript reading. This illustration shows the value of having many manuscripts.

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Imagine that the X at the top is the original text. The other x’s are later copies. Even

though there are slight differences in the later x’s, it is obvious that each copy is an “x.” You will not look at the fourth line (the latest copies) and read a group of “o’s.”

This shows the importance of the number of copies. Since we no longer have the original manuscripts, we depend on copies to discover what was originally written. The best way to reconstruct the original is to compare as many manuscripts as possible. If many manuscripts are analyzed, we can determine the original form of each passage.

How many early copies of the New Testament do we possess? Scholars have found about 25,000 fragments and manuscripts. This includes more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, more than 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and thousands of other manuscripts in other languages.

In addition, there are thousands of New Testament quotations in the writings of the church fathers. With these alone, one could reconstruct practically the entire New Testament.

Compare this to the number of manuscripts of classical Greek and Roman literature. After the New Testament, the piece of ancient literature with the greatest number of existing copies (by far) is Homer’s Illiad. Compared to 25,000 copies of the New Testament, we have about 1,800 copies of the Illiad. The manuscript evidence for the New Testament is far superior to the manuscript evidence for classical Greek and Roman literature. Again, the evidence shows that we can trust the reliability of the New Testament.

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“The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries” (Sir Frederick Kenyon Director of the British Museum).

C. QUALITY

The aspect of quality measures differences between existing manuscripts of an ancient text. To understand this, look at the illustration below.

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As above, imagine that the X at the top is the original text. The other letters are copies. In this example, the differences are huge! Now “x” becomes “z” or “o.” The quality of these copies is low.

Now compare Illustration 1 to Illustration 2 below:

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Here, later copies show only slight differences. It is obvious that each of these is an “x.” The quality of these copies is high.

Illustration 2 is a good depiction of the differences in our copies of the New Testament. From the examination of thousands of ancient copies, it turns out there is less than 1% of the New Testament that is substantially affected by variant readings (about 400 words out of the 138,000 words in the NT) [1]. This 1% does refer to significant differences, but none of these differences affect any major doctrinal teaching or any moral commandment of the New Testament. Any significant doctrine touched on by a disputed passage is taught also in undisputed parts.

If we compare this to other ancient Roman and Greek literature, we see that the New Testament is very reliable. Only Homer’s Illiad is even close to the quality of the New Testament copies.

Though these arguments do not prove that the Bible is the Word of God, they do confirm that we have the original text. Our New Testament contains the text that God inspired in the first century.

Review Questions

  1. Respond to the following objection: “The New Testament was written 100–200 years after the life of Christ. Many of the stories in the New Testament are myths.” Give at least three pieces of evidence to support your response.
  2. What does the bibliographical test attempt to show when applied to any ancient document?
  3. List three aspects of the bibliographical test for the reliability of the New Testament.
  4. Some say, “We cannot trust our copies of the New Testament because there is too much time between the original manuscripts and the earliest surviving copies.” How does the “timespan” aspect of the bibliographical test answer this objection?
  5. Respond to the following objection: “Even if there is a short time between the originals and the first copies, there are too many differences among the surviving New Testament manuscripts for us to know what was in the original. We have too many conflicting manuscripts.”

Footnotes

  1. There are a large number of other variants among the copies, but the vast majority of these are spelling errors or changes in word order, which do not affect the meaning of the text.