The Accuracy of Scripture Historiography and the New Testament
The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and The New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations) being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages (is) therefore authentical.Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 1, Art. 8
The New Penguin Compact English Dictionary defines historiography as “the principles of historical writing”; it is the study of whether the claim made by a piece of writing to deal with, or represent, the events of history stands up to academic scrutiny. One of the basic principles of historiography is the bibliographical test: examining the way a text is transmitted, thereby enabling an ancient document to be accessible to us.1
As members of the Reformed churches of New Zealand, we understand, believe, and affirm that God has preserved the original text of the Bible and guarded it from error. However, I am sure that from time to time, whether in a catechism class or in the privacy of our own minds, we find ourselves asking if the words we read in 1 Corinthians, or the Gospel of John, for example, are exactly what the original authors wrote all those years ago? Is it possible that the Greek New Testament text upon which our English Bible versions are based is still accurate after 2000 years of copying by human hands? As we investigate the bibliographical evidence for the New Testament, we will find that it satisfies the rigorous, academic demands of this aspect of historiography.
The New Testament is made up of 27 individual books or letters. We know that the original documents were probably written on papyrus in ink, and that these autographs (original scrolls) have been long lost since. Most scholars assert that the original authors wrote the books of the New Testament between 50 and 100 A.D. Sir Frederick Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, notes that this claim “has been contested without success”.2 The professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, Bruce Metzger, explains one example of this lack of success. Responding to the claims of Professor Ferdinand Christian Baur, who argued that the Gospel of John was not composed until the year 160 A.D, Metzger cites the discovery, and subsequent dating, of a small fragmentary manuscript copy of part of the Gospel, as composed no later than 125 A.D.3
The Reliability of Copies
As the original autographs are no longer available to us, the bibliographical test requires an examination of all manuscripts that claim to be copies of the originals. This test is twofold: firstly, we examine the reliability of the copies, and secondly, the time interval between the original and other copies that currently exist. Regarding the reliability of manuscript copies available, there appear to be two aspects that add weight to the claim of reliability: the first is the closeness to the original, and the second is the number of manuscripts available to examine.4 F.F. Bruce says, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.” He explains further – “the wealth of attestation is such that the true reading is almost invariably bound to be preserved by at least one of the thousands of witnesses”.5 Similarly, Kurt and Barbara Aland, in summarizing the important points of studying the transmission of the New Testament text explain that “this is what makes it possible to retrace the original text of the New Testament through a broad range of witnesses”.6
A common theme noted amongst authors who deal with the subject of the New Testament is the attention given to the number of manuscript copies that still survive. “The number of available manuscripts of the New Testament is overwhelmingly greater than those of any other work of ancient literature.” (Harold Greenlee7). In the same vein, John A.T. Robinson states, “the wealth of manuscripts and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world”.8 The following graph perhaps best indicates the sheer scale of the claim made by these authors.9 After the New Testament, the next document of antiquity most able to be examined by the number of copied manuscripts available is Homer’s Iliad.
The following quote seems to summarise the strength of the academic claim of the New Testament:
to be sceptical of 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 the New Testament.10
The Time Interval
The second part of this aspect of the bibliographical test is the time interval between the original and the copies that currently exist. The oldest copy of a portion of the New Testament is known as p52. Leading papyrologists have dated this scrap of papyrus, containing a part of five verses of chapter 18 of the Gospel of John, to 125 A.D. They say, “p52 must have been copied very soon after the Gospel of John was itself written in the early 90’s A.D”.11 In comparison Homer’s Iliad, written around 800 B.C, is known from the earliest copies of around 400 B.C, with the first complete manuscript dating from the 13th century A.D.12 Bruce Metzger indicates that further papyri fragments date from 150-200 A.D, parts of a harmony of the four gospels known in Greek as the Dia-tessaron, and authored by Tatian. The two most significant copies of the New Testament, which exist today, are Codex Sinaiaticus and Codex Vaticanus. They are called codex because they are not in the form of a scroll but in the form of what we would recognise as a book. Metzger explains that they are both virtually complete as New Testaments and are dated around 350 A.D.13 Norman Geisler notes that the New Testament, as preserved in Greek copies alone, exists in 5,656 partial or complete manuscripts that were hand copied between the second and fifth centuries.14
Thus far, bibliographically speaking, the New Testament appears to stand up to claims of authenticity. As Sir Frederick Kenyon states in his summary of the ancient versions of New Testament,
We must be content to know that the general authenticity of the New Testament text has been remarkably supported by the modern discoveries which have so greatly reduced the interval between the original autographs and our earliest extant manuscripts.15
The final part of the bibliographical test is accuracy. Do extant manuscript versions written in different languages, and at different times, support the New Testament’s claim of authenticity? Bruce Metzger summarizes his view of the evidence by contrasting “the thinnest possible thread of transmission” in which “the works of several ancient authors are preserved to us” with his claim that “the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.” Apart from manuscript copies of the New Testament, the existence of lectionaries (a regularised system of written lessons from the New Testament designed to be read out in Christian churches) serves also to aid the textual critic in establishing the New Testament’s claim of authenticity. Added to this are the New Testament quotes contained in the correspondence of early church fathers:
so extensive are these citations that if all the other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.16
This veritable mountain of textual evidence leaves little doubt that the New Testament stands at the summit of ancient historical literature. The number of manuscripts, and the consistency of content despite their wide divergence of ethnicity and style, serves only to endorse the historical veracity of the 27 books that make up the New Testament. The short period of time that exists between the composition of the original books and the copies on display in various libraries and museums around the world adds further weight to the claim of textual trustworthiness.
This article has focused on the New Testament. A similar study of the books of the Old Testament would reveal a similar result. The Bible not only reaches the “required academic standard” – it surpasses it in every measure! This should not come as any surprise to the Christian, for the God we worship is a God of superabundance. The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 3:20;
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. NASB
The Revealed Will of God
It would, however, be remiss to end the article here. Academic inquiry is good and necessary, but when we are dealing with the Holy Scriptures we are dealing with the revealed will of God.
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16, 17 NASB
These familiar words are the words written down by a man – the Apostle Paul. Perhaps he was sitting at a desk writing in the light of a nearby window. He would have had to dip his pen in ink frequently. I can imagine him pausing momentarily to rest his chin on the hand that holds his ink pen as he considers the letter he is now writing to Timothy, his “beloved son”, prayerfully reflecting on the words he would next set down. These are words inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself.
Timothy is like many of us, who from childhood “have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15 NASB) Someone made a copy of the Apostle’s letter to Timothy. Many more copies have been made since. God by His “singular care and providence” has made the very words of that letter available to us today. Dear Brother or Sister, may these sacred writings, this treasure of treasures, not remain packed in our church book bags till next Sunday, or stacked tidily on our bookshelves, but instead open in front of us daily, as we prayerfully consider the pure and authentical Word of God.
- Aland, B&K. 1987. The text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.
- Bruce, F.F. 1971. The books and parchments. (3rd ed.) London: Pickering & Inglis.
- Geisler, N.L. 1986. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press.
- Greenlee, J.H. 1977. Introduction to New Testament textual criticism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.
- Kenyon, F. 1958. Our Bible and the ancient manuscripts. (5th ed.) London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.
- McDowell, J. 1999. The new evidence that demands a verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
- Metzger, B. M. 1964. The text of the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Montgomery, J.W. 1964. History & Christianity. Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press.
- Robinson, J.A.T. 1977. Can we trust the New Testament? Oxford: Mowbrays.
- Sanders, C. 1952. Introduction to research in English literary history. New York: MacMillan&Co
- The Penguin group. 2001. The new penguin compact English dictionary. London: Penguin Group.
- Westminster Assembly. 1648. Westminster Confession of Faith. London: N.A.