The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (2)
If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.
-F. F. Bruce
Just how reliable is our New Testament? It has occurred to many of us that we are removed from the original writers of the New Testament by nearly two thousand years. It's only natural to wonder if we are reading just exactly what they wrote. After all, since we have none of the original writings, just copies, can we be confident that those who copied them did not tamper with them?
COMPARISON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WITH CLASSICAL HISTORIES
Due to the manuscript evidence, we are in a better position to answer that question for the New Testament than we are for the great classical histories. The late Sir Frederick Kenyon, who served as director and librarian of the British Museum, has stated:
Besides number, the manuscripts of the New Testament differ from those of the classical authors, and this time the difference is clear gain. 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 350 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..(26)
In order to appreciate the enthusiasm with which Professor Kenyon made that statement, we only need to consider a few examples for testing the reliability of the classical histories and then compare the evidence for the New Testament by that same test.
26. Frederic Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, (London: Macmillian and Co. 1901) p. 4.
Much of our knowledge of the Caesars is dependent upon the writings of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, who wrote about A.D. 100-115. We have no originals from his hand and only half of the thirty books of histories which he wrote have survived the ravages of time in the form of two manuscript copies. One of these manuscripts is from the tenth century and the other from the eleventh century. That means that there are time gaps of 800 to 1000 years from the originals written by Tacitus himself to the only two copies of his work that we presently possess. Now, while that is quite a distance in time removed from the original writings, this kind of manuscript evidence does not cause undue concern among our classical scholars.
About this same quality of manuscript evidence is characteristic of all the classical histories. Consider Julius Caesar's account of his Gallic Wars, which he wrote between 58 and 50 B.C. While there are several good manuscript copies, the oldest is about 900 years removed from Caesar. Quite a gap! Then, there are two historians from deep antiquity, Thucydides and Herodotus, who wrote during the fifth century before Christ. Of the eight manuscript copies from Thucydides, the earliest is about A.D. 900. That leaves a gap of some 1300 years from the original history to our best copy! And the manuscript attestation for Herodotus is said to be about the same. Yet there is not a classical scholar who would yield a single manuscript copy simply because they are removed by such a gap of time from the originals.
New Testament Attestation
A striking contrast exists between the abundance of New Testament manuscripts and the comparative poverty of the classical copies. There are right now some four thousand copies of the Greek New Testament. Some of these are very ancient, two of them dating back to A.D. 350, leaving a time gap of only 250 years from the original writers to our copies. These two oldest and best copies (each in a book form called a codex) are the Codex Siniticus (so called since it was found in 1844 in the monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mt Sinai by the German Bible scholar Constantine Tischendorf) and the Codex Vaticanus (so named because it is kept in the Vatican in Rome). This evidence alone is superior to that for Tacitus' writings. Then there is the Codex Alexandrinus, which is displayed along with the Sinaiticus in the British Museum, and the Codex Bezae from the fifth or sixth century, now located at Cambridge University. And in addition to these, there are hundreds more copies of the quality of the classical manuscripts.
Inasmuch as the classical writings are received as authentic histories on a manuscript basis, which is not nearly as qualitative as that for the New Testament, then how much more should we be confident of the authentic nature of the New Testament. Professor Bruce makes an observation from this basis, apparently with tongue-in-cheek, that "If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt."(27) Also, the Jewish scholar, J. Klausner, said, "If we had ancient sources like those in the Gospels for the history of Alexander or Caesar, we should not cast any doubt upon them whatsoever."(28)
EVIDENCE FROM THE SECOND CENTURY
Besides the codices, there is still more evidence for the New Testament's reliability from yet another source of an earlier date.
From the Apostolic Fathers
There is a collection of writings nearly as old as the New Testament itself, having come down to us through the efforts of copyists, originally dating from about A.D. 90-160. This collection, written by early Christians, contains quotations from the New Testament in such quantity as to very nearly reproduce it. It is referred to as the writings of the apostolic fathers. This is an unofficial designation attributed to these particular writers since they either had a personal acquaintance with one or more of the apostles or sat at the feet of those who did. Their quotations from the New Testament, then, were very close in time to the original documents. The writings have been translated, published and are readily available in libraries and book stores.
27. Bruce, New Testament Documents, p. 15.
28. Will Durant quoting Klausner, Caesar and Christ, p. 557.
Their Values to Us Today
These writings reveal to us how confident those early Christians were that the New Testament contained nothing but the truth, and that it contained an authentic account of the life and teachings of Jesus. At the close of the first century and during the first part of the second, there were thousands of Christians who put their lives on the line for their faith in the Christ of the New Testament. To them, it was not a matter of conjecture whether the New Testament reported the truth; it was the testimony of history not too far removed from the actual events it described, and some of them, still alive at the end of the first century, had even participated in some of those history-making episodes. Some of them still living in the early second century could tell what the apostles themselves had said, as in the case of Ignatius (70-110) and Polycarp (70-156), who knew the apostles. To them, there was no gainsaying the truth of the New Testament. And for that conviction, most of them suffered hardship and some paid the supreme price.
It is also clear from these early documents that Bible readings from the New Testament became a regular part of the Christian life in the second century. Both Clement of Alexandria (who died about 220) and Tertullian (who died about 230) agreed that married people should read the Scriptures together before the chief meal of the day.(29) From another epistle (falsely attributed to Clement) we Christians had purchased Bibles for reading Scriptures aloud.(30) Origen (about 185-254) recalled daily Bible readings and Scripture recitations as a child.(31) And Irenaeus (about 120-202) encouraged Christians to be nourished from the Scriptures.(32)
Even heretics furnish proof that the New Testament had been long written by A.D. 150, and had already attained a place of authority in the church. The writings of the heretical school of Gnosticism headed up by Valentinus (about 130-150) quotes extensively from the New Testament.(33) And a list of several New Testament books which he considered acceptable were drawn up by the heretic, Marcion, about the year 140,(34) furnishing more proof that the New Testament was in circulation by this time.
29. Adolph Harnack, Bible Reading in the Early Church, London, 1912, p. 55
30. Ibid., p. 63.
31. H. G. Herklots, How Our Bible Came to Us, Oxford University Press, 1957, p. 95.
32. Harnack, Bible Reading in the Early Church, p. 53.
33. Bruce, New Testament Documents, p. 19.
34. Ibid., p. 63.
From a Recently Discovered Fragment
In the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, there are collections of papyrus fragments which have been catalogued. Among them is one of the most outstanding biblical discoveries of this century. In 1934, Mr. C. H. Roberts, a papyrology student at Oxford,was sorting a group of papyri, which had been acquired from Egypt in 1920, and found a small papyrus scrap quoting John 18:31-33 on one side and verses 37-38 on the other side. This papyrus fragment was dated by the highly-sophisticated method of paleography (determining dates and origin by the style of writing) at about A.D. 125! That is easily the oldest fragment of a copy of the New Testament in our possession. Of course, the original document, or a copy of it, from which this fragment was made, came first. This shoves the original writing back into the first century into the hands of the apostle John, and forever refutes liberalism's accusation that the Gospel of John was not written until the second century.
Such an accumulation of evidence (and we have barely called attention to the great mass of material evidence) is more than sufficient to confirm that the New Testament, just as we have it now, is a near-perfect reproduction of the original apostolic writings. This is the quality of evidence which led Professor Kenyon to announce:
The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest
extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last
foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us
substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the
authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament
may be regarded as finally established. (35)
There is just no book from the past which has been given such a thoroughgoing testimony to its total reliability. And remember that this reliability embraces the two areas that people want to know about most: that the New Testament, as we have it now, is exactly what was originally written by the apostles and that its statements are historically reliable.
35. Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology, Harper and Row, 1940, p. 288.
A Great Historian's Recommendation
The testimony of Sir William Ramsay is very applicable just here. During the greater part of his life, Sir William was professor of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He became acknowledged as a historian and an outstanding authority on the life of Paul and of the history of the early church, and he carried on extensive archaeological research in Asiatic Turkey and the Bible lands. His defense of the historical Jesus as the son of God is particularly convincing when we consider that Ramsay did not begin researching with the same conviction that he later acquired through his research. Ramsay's archaelogical studies drove him to have confidence in the New Testament. W. Ward Gasque, in an excellent little biography of this truly great scholar, stated: "It is of great significance that Sir William Ramsay came to the study of the New Testament as a Roman historian rather than as a theologian."(36) Indeed, this was significant inasmuch as Ramsay had earlier held the liberal view of the modernistic Tubigen school that the book of Acts was a second-century production. But his archaeological findings convinced him of the total reliability of that book. He wrote of the matter in the following way:
36. Sir William Ramsay, Archaeologist and New Testament Scholar, p. 28.
I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without any prejudice in favor of the conclusion which I shall now attempt to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavorable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tubigen theory had at one time convinced me. It did not lie in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought in contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. (37)
In another book, Ramsay said that "Luke's history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness."(38) In still another book reporting New Testament reliability resulting from his archaeological research, he wrote, "Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."(39)
Ramsay's faith spread to the whole of the New Testament due to the overwhelming evidence which he found in its behalf.
37. Ramsey, Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, pp. 7,8.
38. Ramsey, Luke the Physician, p. 177.
39. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, p. 222.
How can we know that Jesus is the son of God? We might ask how we can know of anything which we have not seen? The answer is testimony. Someone told us in either words or works left behind. Do we accept as true the outstanding exploits of Alexander the Great and of Julius Caesar? Of course. But why? The answer is always the same-history. But when we refer to history are we not referring to the testimony left by yet others? Who doubts that Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo? That Columbus sailed to the Americas in the fifteenth century? That Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517? There is no good reason for doubting these men and these events. The testimony in our possession is absolutely convincing. By the same token, we cannot reject the superlative testimony of the New Testament on any grounds of historical evidence. By the very same methods used to attest the reliability of other ancient writings, the New Testament is confirmed to be every bit as reliable as the classical histories.
The case for belief in Christ as our Saviour-God is the written testimony of the New Testament writers. It is a mistake to think that these men merely asserted that Jesus is the son of God without proof. They have pointed us to the weight of the historical evidence. They have appealed to our intelligence and our ability to weigh the evidence and deduct a logical conclusion and, without fear of contradiction, have offered their testimony in the verifiable context of a space-time dimension. They have only requested that we examine their testimony and honestly weigh the evidence as they have presented it. It then becomes ours to make a decision on the basis of that evidence.