How does the Quantity of New Testament Manuscripts Compare to Other Ancient Manuscripts?


In my last article, How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?, I showed there are over 5,800 Greek New Testament manuscripts that have been cataloged. Scholars also know of over 20,000 manuscripts in other languages, about half of them in Latin. There are also undoubtedly thousands of manuscripts in private collections, churches and libraries which are effectively lost to the academic world and haven’t been studied.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single database which contains information for every ancient manuscript. The data I’ve found is inconsistent, and it’s probably comparing apples-to-oranges. The total number of manuscripts on the K-Liste1 is inflated due to manuscripts being duplicated on the list, lost, damaged and even stolen. Even with its problems, it’s the most comprehensive source available for cataloging Greek New Testament manuscripts.

Much of the data regarding the New Testament manuscripts is from Christian Apologetics sources, and many of those base their information off work done by Clay Jones (and later co-authored by Josh McDowell)2. Jones and McDowell undoubtedly have more resources available than I do (although they also use the K-Liste), and I’m sure their numbers are more accurate and comprehensive than most other sources I’ve been able to find. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell is my primary source for this article3.

The best independent source I’ve been able to find for non-Biblical manuscripts is the Trismegistos database, which curates data from several databases of ancient manuscripts. Unfortunately, Trismegistos focuses on papyrus and other early media, and papyrus started going out of use around 300-400 A.D. This means there are many manuscripts on parchment and vellum which aren’t listed in this database, so the number of manuscripts available is probably low. It should show the oldest fragments for non-Christian books, most of which are on papyrus, although some are on pottery and other media. In the table in the footnotes, there’s a link (in column 14) to the Trismegistos data for each of the works listed there. Again, it’s  probably an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it’s the best I could find.

Part of the problem is that Christian apologists often use the most up-to-date numbers when referring to New Testament manuscripts, but continue to use outdated information when comparing to works by ancient non-Christian authors. My intent was to find the most up-to-date information I could for both Christian and non-Christian manuscripts, which was definitely a challenge.

The numbers I’m using in my table and chart are estimates, and in some cases they’re wildly different. I wanted to be the most generous I could with these numbers, so I’m counting the latest date a work could have been written, and the earliest dates of fragments and manuscripts, with the attempt to minimize the number of years between the dates. In one case, the number of years between the date written and the earliest fragments came out to be 0 years. Thucydides lived in the 4th century (400-300) BC. and the earliest fragments are from the 3rd century (300-200) BC. Since the latest date his work could have been written was 300 BC, and the earliest fragment could have been from 300 BC, my table shows 0 years. That’s undoubtedly incorrect, but it fits my methodology. I’m using the same methodology for the New Testament, with a late completion date of A.D. 100, while parts of the New Testament were likely written 50 or more years earlier. The number of years between the when the New Testament was written and the earliest fragment and a complete manuscript could be 50-100 years longer, but the numbers I’m using are consistent with my methodology. See the footnotes for the information I’ve been able to find.4

I’ve included both fragments and complete manuscripts in my research, although I’m using the word “complete” very loosely. In my research, it seems the word complete doesn’t necessarily mean 100% of the original text, but rather a large enough portion for scholars to be certain of their analysis. A fragment that’s only a few square inches isn’t very helpful to scholars in determining if a text has been transmitted to us correctly. A manuscript of 50 pages, or 500 pages, is much more useful when trying to learn what the author may have originally written.

Even if some of the specific numbers I use are incorrect, I believe the overall patterns are still correct. The number of New Testament manuscripts far exceeds the number of manuscripts from ancient Greek and Roman authors.

Number of Manuscripts for Ancient Works

The ages of the manuscripts is an even more difficult issue to address. In most cases, when the age of a manuscript is reported, it’s not indicated if the manuscript is a fragment or a complete manuscript. Some of the discrepancies I’ve seen in dates are due to what the authors are reporting. In my research, I’ve found some sources report fragments for some ancient works, while reporting complete manuscripts for other ancient works. For some ancient authors, that can mean a difference of over 1,000 years between the earliest fragment and the earliest complete manuscript. Finding the earliest fragments for these works wasn’t too difficult, but finding the earliest complete manuscript proved to be a much bigger challenge than I had expected (I wasn’t able to find reliable dates for some works).  

Years Between Date Written and Earliest Fragment or Manuscript
Years Between Date Written and Earliest Fragment or Manuscript

Just because there are many manuscripts, and relatively early ones, doesn’t inherently mean the document is true, whether it’s the New Testament or one of the Classical Greek authors. The numbers and ages help  scholars determine if it’s been transmitted to us correctly, not that the authors accurately wrote about historical events, or spiritual ones. Again, even if some specific numbers are incorrect, I believe the patterns are clear. The complete (100% in this case) New Testament manuscripts are much closer in time to the autographs than complete manuscripts for any of the ancient Greek or Roman authors. Whether the New Testament is true or not has been debated for thousands of years, and will be topics of research in the future on BibleQuestions.info.

If you’re aware of more current or reliable data, please let me know, as I’d like to keep this information up-to-date. You can reach me using contact form at the bottom of the page, using Facebook, or via e-mail using the e-mail contact form

Data based on Research by Clay Jones and Josh McDowell

Resources

  • Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts (Lexham Press: 2014) (Logos)
  • Geisler, Norman L. and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crosswsy Books, 2004; Logos) Chapter 9. (Amazon) (Logos)
  • Hellerman, Joe. Defending the Gospel Accounts of Jesus (Biola University; Audio CD) Accessed 03-Nov-2018.
  • Hixson, Elijah and Gurry, Peter J. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019; Logos) (Amazon) (Logos)
  • Koukl, Greg. The Bible Translated, Retranslated, and…Changed? No Chance. (Stand to Reason, May 1, 2000; Blog)
  • Logos Bible Software Infographics (Logos Bible Software, version 8.9; LBSI 2009) (Logos)
  • Sinclair, David. An Overview of the Bible (DavidSinclairMC.com, 2006-2010; PDF) 11.
  • Slick, Matt. Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability (CARM.org, 12/10/08) Accessed 06-Dec-2019.
  • Some manuscript traditions of the Greek classics (Tertullian.org) Accessed 05-Dec-2019.
  • Trismegistos.org (Website) Accessed 11-24-2019.
  • Wegner, Paul D. A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006; Logos) Pages 40-41. (Amazon) (Logos)
  • Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 110. (Amazon)

Footnotes

  1. What is the Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments?
  2. I’ve included some sources in the section Data based on Research by Clay Jones and Josh McDowell.
  3. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) Page 55. (Amazon)
  4. AuthorNumber of
    Fragments &
    Manuscripts
    (BibleQuestions.info)
    Date Written, or
    Author's Date of
    Death
    (BibleQuestions.info)
    Earliest
    Fragment
    Date
    (BibleQuestions.info)
    Years Between Date
    Written and Earliest
    Fragment
    (BibleQuestions.info)
    Earliest
    Manuscript Date
    (BibleQuestions.info)
    Years Between Date
    Written and Earliest
    Manuscript
    (BibleQuestions.info)
    Number of
    Manuscripts
    (McDowell)
    Earliest
    Manuscript
    (McDowell)
    Attestations
    of Works
    (Trismegistos)
    Author Lived
    (Trismegistos)
    Work Written
    (Trismegistos)
    Earliest
    Manuscript
    (Trismegistos)
    Web Link
    (Trismegistos)
    Number of
    Manuscripts
    (Jones)
    Date
    Written
    (Jones)
    Earliest
    Manuscript
    (Jones)
    Time Gap
    (Jones)
    Number of
    Manuscripts
    (Logos)
    Date
    Written
    (Logos)
    Number
    of Copies
    (Sinclair)
    Date
    Written
    (Sinclair)
    Earliest
    Copies
    (Sinclair)
    Time Gap
    (Sinclair)
    Number
    of Copies
    (Slick)
    Date
    Written
    (Slick)
    Earliest
    Copy
    (Slick)
    Approximate
    Time Span between
    original & copy
    (Slick)
    Earliest
    Fragment
    Date
    (Tertuallian.org)
    Earliest
    Manuscript
    Date
    (Tertullian.org)
    Number of
    Manuscripts
    (Wegner)
    Date
    Written
    (Wegner)
    Earliest
    Manuscript
    (Wegner)
    Number of
    Manuscripts
    (Wilkins)
    Writing
    Completed
    (Wilkins)
    Earliest
    Manuscript
    (Wilkins)
    Years
    Removed
    (Wilkins)
    New Testament (Greek)5856AD 50-100AD 12525AD 3252255856AD 1305795AD 50-100AD 130400 (fragment)
    700 (manuscripts)
    6000AD 50-1005366AD 50-100AD 114 (fragment)
    AD 200 (books)
    AD 250 (most of NT)
    AD 325 (complete NT)
    50 / 100 / 150 / 2255600AD 50-100AD 130305400AD 40-1105800AD 50-98AD 110-12512-27
    New Testament (All Languages)23986AD 100AD 12525AD 3252252398623,769
    Caesar - Gallic Wars25144 BCAD 800844251AD 800-900251100-44 BCAD 800-90095010100-44 BC10100-44 BCAD 900100010AD 100-44AD 90010001058-50 BCAD 900-95025151-46 BCAD 800-900950
    Demosthenes - Speeches444300 BC100 BC200AD 11001400444100-1 BC207384-322 BC384-322 BCAbout 150 BCDemosthenes - Speeches340300 BC100-1 BC (fragments)
    AD 1100 (manuscript)
    1100 (manuscript)200300 BC200300 BCAD 1,10014008400-300 BCAD 1100800340300 BC100-1 BC (Fragments)1000
    Euripides - Tragedies330406 BC300 BC106204480-406 BC480-406 BCAbout 300 BCEuripides - Tragedies330500-400 BC49480-406 BCAD 11001300
    Herodotus - History109425 BC150 BC275AD 9001325106150-50 BC45484-425 BC440-425 BCAbout 150 BCHerodotus - History109480-425 BCAD 900-100013508480-435 BC8480-425 B.CAD 90013508480-425 BC900 AD1300AD 50-100AD 900-1000109480-425 BCAD 900-10001350
    Homer - Illiad1900700 BC415 BC285AD 85015501900415 BC1432750-700 BC750-700 BCAbout 300 BCHomer - Illiad1757800 BC400 BC400650800 B.C643800 BC400 BC400643900 BC400 BC500AD 850-9001757800 BC400-300 BC (fragments)
    AD 800-900
    500
    Homer - Odyssey574700 BC300 BC400AD 9001600574750-700 BC750-700 BCAbout 300 BCHomer - Odyssey400-300 BCAD 900-1000
    Josephus55AD 100AD 20010012AD 37-100AD 37-100About AD 200Josephus55AD 75-95
    Livy - History of Rome473AD 17AD 300283473AD 300-40015059 BC - AD 17AD 400-4504002059 B.C - AD 171 (fragment)
    19 (manuscripts)
    59 BC - AD 17AD 300-400 (fragments)
    AD 1000-1100 (manuscripts)
    400 (fragments)
    1000 (manuscripts)
    2059 BC-17 AD2059 BC-AD 17AD 300-40015059 BC - AD 17AD 400-500400
    Plato - Tetralogies238347 BCBC 30047AD 8951242238400-300 BC96428-347 BC428-347 BCAbout 300 BCPlato - Tetralogies210400 BCAD 89513007400 BC7400 BCAD 90013007427-347 BCAD 9001200210400 BCAD 8951300
    Pliny the Elder - Natural History200AD 79AD 400321AD 13001221200AD 400-5009AD 23-79AD 77About AD 400Pliny the Elder - Natural History200AD 49-79AD 400-500 (fragment)
    AD 1300-1500 (manuscripts)
    400 (fragment)
    700 (manuscripts)
    200AD 49-79AD 400-500 (fragment)400
    Pliny the Younger - Natural History7AD 113AD 850737761-113 AD7AD 61-113AD 8507507AD 61-113AD 8501200
    Sophocles - Oedipus Rex3405 BCAD 1005053497-405 BC497-405 BCAbout AD 100Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
    Sophocles - Plays226405 BC400 BC5AD 100505226400-300 BC41497-405 BC497-405 BCAbout 300 BCSophocles - Plays193496-406 BC400-300 BC100-200193496-406 BCAD 10001400100-1 BCAD 100-200193496-406 BC400-300 BC (fragments)
    AD 900-1000
    100-200
    Tacitus - Annals36AD 100AD 800700AD 1050950361st half - AD 850
    2nd half - AD 1050
    2 (fragments)
    31 (manuscripts)
    AD 1001st half - AD 850
    2nd half - AD 1050
    750-95020AD 10020AD 100AD 1100100020AD 100110010002AD 100AD 800-110033AD 100AD 800-1000750-950
    Thucydides - History188400 BC400 BC0AD 9001300188400-300 BC95460-400 BC460-400 BCAbout 300 BCThucydides - History96460-400 BC400-300 BC (fragment)
    AD 900 (manuscript)
    200 (fragment)
    1,350 (manuscript)
    8460-400 BC8460-400 BCAD 90013008460-400 BCAD 9001300AD 1000-11008460-400 BCAD 1-100 (fragments)
    AD 900 (manuscript)
    96460-400 BC400-300 BC (fragments)200
    © BibleQuestions.info, 14-Dec-2019

    Most of these numbers are estimates, particularly the dates.

    McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean.
    Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World
    (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017; Kindle) Page 55.
    Trismegistos.org
    (Website)
    Accessed 11-24-2019.
    Jones, Clay.
    The Bibliographical Test Updated
    (Equip.org; Oct 1, 2013) Accessed 16-Nov-2019.
    Logos Bible Software Infographics
    (Logos Bible Software, version 8.9; LBSI 2009)
    Sinclair, David.
    An Overview of the Bible
    (DavidSinclairMC.com, 2006-2010; PDF) 11.
    Slick, Matt.
    Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability
    (CARM.org, 12/10/08) Accessed 06-Dec-2019.
    Tertullian.org.
    Some manuscript traditions of the Greek classics
    (Tertullian.org) Accessed 05-Dec-2019.
    Wegner, Paul D.
    A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods and Results
    (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006; Logos) Pages 40-41.
    Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews.
    The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism
    (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 110.

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