New Testament Documents Historical or not

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New Testament Documents Historical or not

After the overview of the principal fallacies in Dr. Stroll’s paper let us take on the first of the major questions he raises.  Namely, are the New Testament documents of sufficient historical worth that we can gather from them a reliable picture of Jesus’ claims concerning himself and of the claims made for him by others?

Let it be noted, we will not naively assume the “inspiration” or “infallibility” of the New Testament records, and then by circular reasoning attempt to prove what we have previously assumed. This is one  of the most rebarbative claim of Atheists.


We will regard the documents only as documents, and we will treat them as we would any other historical materials even though today they are usually printed on fine India paper with verse numbers.  We will avoid deferring to modern, rationalistic “authorities” and go directly to the documents themselves and subject them to the tests of reliability employed in general historiography and literary criticism. These tests are well set out by C. Sanders in his Introduction to Research in English Literary History[1] as “bibliographical,” “internal” and “external.”  Sanders is a Professor of Military History, so it seems unlikely that I can be criticized for theological bias in utilizing his concepts.

The Bibliographical test refers to the analysis of the textual tradition by which a document reaches us.  In the particular case of the New Testament documents, the question is: since we do not have the original documents, how reliable are the copies we have in regard to the number of manuscripts (MSS) and the time interval between the original and extant copy?

  1. E. Peters points out that “on the basis of manuscript tradition alone, the works that made up the Christians’ New Testament were the most frequently copied and widely circulated books of antiquity.[2]

Can we arrive at a stable, reliable textual foundation for the claims of Jesus as set out in these records?  Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, formerly Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, summarizes the textual advantage, which the New Testament documents have over all the other manuscripts of ancient classical authors:

“In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament. The books of the New Testament were written in the latter part of the first century; the earliest extant manuscripts (trifling scraps excepted) are of the fourth century— say, from 250 to 300 years later. This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an  accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poet’s death. Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Thucydides are in the same state; while with Euripides the interval is increased to 1600 years. For Plato it may be put at 1300 years, for Demosthenes as low as 1200[3]. “

For confirmation of these intervals between date of composition and date of earliest substantial text, together with numerous other examples, see F.W. Hall’s list[4].

Moreover, as A.T. Robertson, the author of the most comprehensive grammar of New Testament Greek, wrote in his Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament:

There are some 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate and at least 1,000 for the other early versions. Add over 4,000 Greek manuscripts and we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament. Besides all this, much of the New Testament can be reproduced from the quotations of the early Christian writers[5].

  1. J. A. Hort rightfully adds that “in the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings.[6]
  2. Harold Greenlee states , ” . . . the number of available MSS of the New Testament is overwhelmingly greater than those of any other work of ancient literature. In the third place, the earliest extant MSS of the N. T. were written much closer to the date of the original writing than is the case in almost any other piece of ancient literature.[7]

Geisler and Nix make a comparison of the textual variations between the New Testament documents and ancient works: “Next to the New Testament, there are more extant manuscripts of the Iliad (643) than any other book. Both it and the Bible were considered’sacred,’ and both underwent textual changes and criticism of their Greek manuscripts. The New Testament has about 20,000 lines.” They continue by saying that “the Iliad [has] about 15,600. Only 40 lines (or 400 words) of the New Testament are in doubt whereas 764 lines of thelliad are questioned. This five percent textual corruption compares with one-half of one percent of similar emendations in the New Testament[8].


F F. Bruce in The Books and the Parchments writes that if no objective textual evidence is available to correct an obvious mistake, then “the textual critic must perforce employ the art of conjectural emendation — an art which demands the severest self-discipline.  The emendation must commend itself as obviously right, and it must account for the way in which the corruption crept in. In other words, it must be both ‘intrinsically probable’ and ‘transcriptionally probable.’ It is doubtful whether there is any reading in the New Testament which requires it to be conjecturally emended. The wealth of attestation is such that the true reading thousands of witnesses.[9]

Geisler and Nix say, concerning the observations of Hort above, that “only about one-eighth of all the variants had any weight, as most of them are merely mechanical matters such as spelling or style. Of the whole, then, only about one-sixtieth rise above ‘trivialities,’ or can in any sense be called ‘substantial variations.’ Mathematically this would compute to a text that is 98.33 percent pure[10].”

Frederic G. Kenyon continues in The Story of the Bible: “It is reassuring at the end to find that the general result of all these discoveries (of manuscripts) and all this study is to strengthen the proof of the authenticity of the Scriptures, and our conviction that we have in our hands, in substantial integrity, the veritable Word of God.[11]

Gleason Archer, in answering the question about objective evidence, shows that variants or errors in transmission of the text do not affect God’s revelation: “A careful study of the variants (different readings) of the various earliest manuscripts reveals that none of them affects a single doctrine of Scripture. The system of spiritual truth contained in the standard Hebrew text of the Old Testament is not in the slightest altered or compromised by any of the variant readings found in the Hebrew manuscripts of earlier date found in the Dead Sea caves or anywhere else. All that is needed to verify this is to check the register of well-attested variants in Rudolf Kittel’s edition of the Hebrew Bible. It is very evident that the vast majority of them are so inconsequential as to leave the meaning of each clause doctrinally unaffected.[12]

John Rylands’ MS (130 A.D.) is located in The John Rylands Library of Manchester, England (oldest extant fragment of the New Testament). “Because of its early date and location (Egypt), some distance from the traditional place of composition (Asia Minor), this portion of the Gospel of John tends to confirm the traditional date of the composition of the Gospel about the end of the 1st century[13].”

Chester Beatty Papyri (200 A.D.) is located in C. Beatty Museum in Dublin and part is owned by the University of Michigan. This collection contains papyrus codices, three of them containing major portions of the New Testament[14].

Codex Alexandrinus (400 A.D.) is located in the British Museum; Encyclopaedia Britannica believes it was written in Greek in Egypt. It contains almost the entire Bible.

Codex Bezae (450 A.D. plus) is located in the Cambridge Library and contains the Gospels and Acts not only in Greek but also in Latin.

Another strong support for textual evidence and accuracy is the ancient versions. For the most part, “ancient literature was rarely translated into another language.[15]

Christianity from its inception has been a missionary faith. Jesus taught us to go out into the world and spread his message.

“The earliest versions of the New Testament were prepared by missionaries to assist in the propagation of the Christian faith among peoples whose native tongue was Syriac, Latin, or Coptic[16].”

Syriac and Latin versions (translations) of the New Testament were made around 150 A.D. This brings us back very near to the time of the originals.

  1. Harold Greenlee says that the quotations of the Scripture in the works of the early Christian writers “are so extensive that the N. T. could virtually be reconstructed from them without the use of New Testament manuscripts.[17]

Sir David Dalrymple was wondering about the preponderance of Scripture in early writing when someone asked him, “Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?”  After a great deal of investigation Dalrymple concluded: “Look at those books. You remember the question about the New Testament and the Fathers? That question roused my curiosity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses[18].”

To express skepticism concerning the resultant text of the New Testament books (as represented, for example, by Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece) 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.

One problem I constantly face is the desire on the part of many Atheists to apply one standard or test to secular literature and another to the Bible. One needs to apply the same test, whether the literature under investigation is secular or religious.  I have done this, I have read the books, I have highlighted important points, I have made comparisons and I believe I can say the Bible is trustworthy and historically reliable.  Josh McDowell used this quote and I like it.  They are the  words of Sir Walter Scott in reference to the Scriptures:

“Within that awful volume lies

The mystery of mysteries

Happiest they of human race

To whom God has granted grace

To read, to fear, to hope, to pray

To lift the latch, and force the way;

And better had they ne’er been born,

Who read to doubt, or read to scorn[19]” 84/ 140


To all my Atheist, agnostic, and non-believing friends, read the above and the articles to follow.  Check the references and if you still want to argue your silly questions, be brave enough to tell me why.

Next section will cover External Proofs of the validity of the Bible.

[1] C. Sanders, Introduction to Research in English Literary History (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), pp. 143 ff.

[2] Peters, S. E. The Harvest of Hellenism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971. p.51

[3] Frederic G. Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (2nd. Ed.; London: The Macmillan Company, 1912), p. 5. See below, Appendix B, for Professor Edwin M. Yamauchi’s evaluation of Kenyon’s evidence..

[4] F.W. Hall, “MS Authorities for the Text of the Chief Classical Writers,” in his Companion to Classical Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), pp. 199 ff.

[5] A.T. Robertson, Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1925), p. 70.

[6] Hort, Fenton John Anthony and Brooke Foss Westcott. The New Testamentin

[7] Greenlee, J. Harold. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964. p 15

[8] Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1968. p 366

[9] Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments. Rev. ed. Westwood: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1963. pp 179,180

[10] Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1968. P. 365

[11] Kenyon, Frederic G, The Story of the Bible. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967.

[12] Archer, Gleason, A Survey of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Press, 1964. P 25

[13] Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1968. P 268

[14] Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments. Rev. ed. Westwood: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1963. P 182

[15] Greenlee, J. Harold. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.

[16] Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968. P 67

[17] Greenlee, J. Harold. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964. P.54

[18] Leach, Charles. Our Bible. How We Got It. Chicago: Moody Press, 1898. Pp 35-36

[19] Scott, Sir Walter. The Monastery. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1913. P.140


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