How Reliable can we reconstruct the New Testament?
The reliability of the New Testament documents.
When one wants to consider the reliability of any ancient document, three aspects need to be looked at. 1.) How short the time span is between the actual event and the date it was reported. How shorter this period, the more accurate the report would be since contemporaries could evaluate and correct inaccurate particulars. 2.) How short the time span is between the initial autograph, and the oldest copy available. Variations, errors or deliberate alterations are unavoidable. Therefore the shorter this time span the greater the possibility that the copy could be a true copy of the original. 3.) The third aspect is the number of copies we have of the specific document. The more copies we have to work with, the greater is the possibility to reconstruct the original correctly. Here we have to take into account an important discrepancy. All hand written manuscripts and copies are corrupted by mistakes and deviations, whether deliberately or unintentional. As a result, with only a few copies, few deviations will be found. With only one copy, there will of course be no deviation but equally there is no certainty that it would be a true copy of the original. With many copies the deviations will increase, but also the possibility to compile a correct and true rendering of the original.
According to these criteria, we compare the New Testament with some other ancient documents.
1. The time lapse between event and autograph. According to calculations Jesus was crucified between 30 and 33 A.D. The epistles of the disciples and Paul were written around 65 A.D. This means that these epistles were written about thirty years after the crucifixion; the gospels about ten years later. The whole New Testament was finalized around 95 A.D. about sixty to sixty five years after the crucifixion. Consequently there were many eye witnesses present who knew Jesus personally, and could correct any misinformation or something reported out of context. It is also important to note that none of the facts mentioned in the New Testament is contradicted by any of the historians of the day. To the contrary many archeological discoveries as well as documents of that time confirm the facts.
2. The time lapse between the autograph and the oldest copy we have. Again the New Testament is head and shoulders above other ancient documents. A papyrus fragment in the John Rylands collection, named p52 containing a few verses of the gospel of John, is dated around 125 A.D. Taking in account that this gospel was written ±95 A.D. it means that this copy dates from less than thirty years after the autograph. This is unheard of in ancient documents. Most of the other books of the New Testament are represented by copies of about 150 years after the original. The time span for Mark is about 200 years. The time span for the epistles of James, Peter and John is about 250 years with Timothy and 3 John following at 300 years. The nearest to this is Homer’s Iliad at about 500 years. With most antique documents the time span is between 1000 to 1500 years.
3. The number of copies to our avail. Consider the following table:
|Document||Time written||Oldest copy||Time lapse||Number copies|
|Homer, Iliad||±900 B.C.||±400 B.C.||±500 yr.||643|
|Sophocles||±496-406 B.C.||±1000 A.D.||±1400 yr.||193|
|Herodotus||±480-425 B.C.||±900 A.D.||±1300 yr.||8|
|Euripides||±480-406 B.C.||±1100 A.D.||±1300 yr.||9|
|Aristophanes||±450-385 B.C.||±900 A.D.||±1200 yr.||10|
|Plato||±427-347 B.C.||±900 A.D.||±1200 yr.||7|
|Aristotle||±348-322 B.C.||±1100 A.D.||±1400 yr.||49|
|Caesar||±100-44 B.C.||±900 A.D.||±1000 yr.||10|
|Tacitus||±100 A.D.||±1100 A.D.||±1000 yr.||20|
|New Testament||±50-96 A.D.||±125-350 A.D.||±30-300 yr.||5600|
|Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin NT.||±200-300 A.D.||±250-500 A.D.||±50-200 yr.||19000|
Learned scholars estimate that Homer’s Iliad can be reconstructed to about 95% certainty. Then what about the New Testament!
Apart from the 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the text critic has another 19000 manuscripts of ancient translations of the New Testament to his avail. This corpus of almost 25000 manuscripts is supplemented by hundreds of quotations by the early Church Fathers. This makes it possible for Bible scholars to reconstruct each book of the New Testament to about 99.5% certainty.
When we take these facts in consideration, there should be no uncertainty at all! But if we honestly want to reconstruct the original autographs of the different books of the New Testament other things come into play. The New Testament is no little Illiad-story, or dead Caesarean history. It is the bundle of documents on which our faith is built and grounded! It is the document in which our eternal destiny is formulated! It is not the creation of some ancient historian or gifted writer!
IT IS THE WORD OF GOD!!
With reverence we then should bow before God and pray: “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Ps.139:24)
With humility we then should to take into consideration the following:
1. Open up your mind and face the facts! If there are more than 5000 Greek manuscripts available, don’t settle for only the few some printer in the ancient past had used. God did not guard over all those documents for no reason!
2. Break the chains binding your mind! Not every thing my father and grandfather believed are true just because they believed it! They had to take into account what had been available to them, and so should we take into account what is available to us. God did not let modern technology be invented only for the secular world!
3. Use your logic! If some ancient monk did add to, or subtract from the Scriptures, look at the facts and try to understand why he thought it necessary, and don’t let it sidetrack you! God did not fill up the space between your ears with some grey matter for no reason!
4. Get your ducks in a row. Reconstruct the Bible according to the factual matter available in manuscripts and then evaluate your beliefs and dogmas accordingly. God does not need us to reconstruct the Bible in order to prove our beliefs and dogmas.
5. Accept there is something like context! Read Scripture within its immediate and larger context! God existed long before Genesis 1:1, and Joseph and Isaiah had been real people of flesh and blood, and so had been Ahaz!
These are but a few pointers we should take into account when we look at Gods word and run the race of faith and honesty when we take the Bible in our hands
It’s all about the Glory of God!!!