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


Last week I showed some data about the quantity and ages of both New Testament manuscripts and ancient Greek and Roman authors in the article How does the Quantity of New Testament Manuscripts Compare to Other Ancient Manuscripts?. I had originally planned on using these quotes in last week’s article, but it was getting too long. This week is mostly quotes by scholars and authors regarding that data.

So what we have are classical works. Classical historians read them, study them, take them seriously—yet the manuscript tradition is rather weak compared to the NT manuscript tradition. The classical manuscripts are late and few in number, yet no recognized classical historian doubts the general reliability of these manuscripts, even if they were produced 1,000 years or so after the original. That’s what so impresses me about the Greek NT [New Testament] manuscript tradition. And if we’re referring to the Gospels, we have virtually the entire Gospel text about 200 years or so after the time of the writing of the originals. We don’t just have a handful of manuscripts—we have hundreds that are old. We have thousands that predate the Gutenberg printing press, which means that through comparison and examination, reconstruction, and hard work—what’s called textual criticism—we can with confidence reconstruct the text as it was originally written, or at least come within about 99 percent of it. This is a record of preservation that by far and away surpasses that of all other texts from antiquity.1

So why aren’t there more copies of the classical Greek authors? They’ve existed for hundreds of years longer than the New Testament text, so shouldn’t there be more manuscripts? As embarrassing as this is for Christians, early Christians are partly to blame:

These [classical Greek] texts were systematically  copied and  studied  at the  library  in  Alexandria [Egypt] which burned  partially  in the first  century  BC,  and  then  the texts  were also  systematically  destroyed  by  Christians in  the fourth century and  Muslims  in  the  seventh and  eighth  centuries. Christians are  in  part  to blame for destroying around  1  million  classical  scrolls, and  the  fact  that  any  classical texts  survive in  large numbers  is remarkable. Centuries  later,  we  often  use the dearth of evidence  to show  the  superior preservation  of the Bible.2

Christians weren’t the only people destroying books. Christianity was illegal (though generally tolerated, with some periods of local persecution) in the Roman Empire, until the early 4th century. In A.D. 303, Emperor Diocletian issued an edict removing the few remaining rights Christians had, and started an empire-wide persecution of Christians, including the destruction of Bibles. The persecutions officially ended in A.D. 311 by Emperor Galerius, but during the 4th century (A.D. 300-400), both Christian and non-Christian books were destroyed. Fortunately, copies of some books were able to escape destruction.

Regardless of who destroyed the manuscripts, or when they were destroyed, the New Testament manuscripts that still exist vastly outnumber the manuscripts from the Classical Greek authors and Roman historians. These numbers don’t include the quotes of the New Testament in the writings of the early church fathers, which would likely include thousands of additional manuscripts. I think these quotes sum up the situation well:

The New Testament is the most remarkably preserved book of the ancient world. Not only do we have a great number of manuscripts but they are very close in time to the originals they represent. Some partial manuscripts of the NT [New Testament] are from the second century AD, and many are within four centuries of the originals. These facts are all the more amazing when they are compared with the preservation of other ancient literature.3

No one questions the authenticity of the historical books of antiquity because we do not possess the original copies. Yet we have far fewer manuscripts of these works than we possess of the NT.4

If we have doubts about what the autographic NT [New Testament] said, those doubts would have to be multiplied a hundredfold for the average classical author. When we compare the NT [New Testament] MSS [manuscripts] to the very best that the classical world has to offer, the NT MSS still stand high above the rest. The NT is by far the best-attested work in Greek or Latin literature from the ancient world.5

Why did the New Testament survive so much better than than other books of antiquity?

  • Heaven and earth will pass away, but my [Jesus] words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35 ESV)
  • …for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25 ESV)

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.
  • Koukl, Greg. The Bible Translated, Retranslated, and…Changed? No Chance. (Stand to Reason, May 1, 2000; Blog)

Footnotes

  1. Evans, Craig A. The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts (Lexham Press: 2014) Segment 3: The Superior Preservation of the New Testament  (Logos Bible Software)
  2. Carroll, Scott. Correspondence  from  Dr.  Scott  Carroll  to  Josh  McDowell,  October  31,  2013. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh D. and Clay Jones. The Bibliographical Test (Equip.org, 2014; PDF) Accessed 30-Jun-2019.
  3. Glenny, W. Edward. “The Preservation of Scripture,” in The Bible Version Debate (Minneapolis: Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 1977) 95. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 67. (Amazon)
  4. Glenny, W. Edward. “The Preservation of Scripture,” in The Bible Version Debate (Minneapolis: Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 1977) 96. Quoted in: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 55. (Amazon)
  5. Wallace, Daniel B. “Lost in Transmission: How Badly did the Scribes Corrupt the New Testament Text?” in Wallace, Daniel B. (Editor) Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011) 29. (Amazon) (Logos)

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