Have you ever been told that the Bible is historically unreliable and not been sure how to respond? Most people who make that claim are using it as a lever to excuse themselves from taking Christianity seriously. Press them, and you find they have not actually studied the facts about the Bible’s historicity. It’s a sign of the craziness of our times that the word ‘facts’ has itself become contentious. Setting that aside, it’s instructive to look at the statistics relating to the extant New Testament manuscripts. If we dig into the figures, we discover some striking data that rarely seem to find their way into the popular media.
I first became interested in this subject when I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, which has recently been released as a film and will be available in Australia in May 2017. While I don’t agree with everything Strobel writes, and find his writing style annoying in its lack of subtlety and constant attempts to re-create the scene, his interviewees are usually well-known scholars in their fields.
We’re all familiar today with the way some news items ‘go viral’. A similar thing happened after Christ’s Resurrection: an astounding explosion in documented output by authors describing it. So singular, extraordinary, impossible, fantastic, and unbelievable was this event, that not only did it inspire four contemporary eye-witness and/or “one-step-removed-from-eye-witness” authors to produce accounts (something unheard of for any other event in ancient history), but the sheer volume and speed of propagation of these documents is unparalleled, considering the technology available in this period of history.
Focussing in on just two aspects of this phenomenon, I’d like to share with you some graphs for those of you who are visual learners. I will concentrate on these two questions:
- Number of manuscripts.
- How many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament exist?
- How does this compare with the number of manuscripts of other ancient documents?
- Time interval
- What is the time interval between the date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript?
- How does this compare with other ancient documents?
Just to define my terms, I should mention that by manuscripts I am including handwritten copies prior to the invention of the printing press, inscribed on papyrus, parchment, vellum, and paper, in any number of languages from that period: Greek and Latin, Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian, amongst others.
Comparing the most well-known works from this period, we find a breakdown as shown in Table 1 below. Surprising, isn’t it, that there are only seven manuscripts of Virgil’s Aeneid, ten of Caesar’s Gallic Wars which it was de rigueur for every Latin scholar of my era to read, but over 24,000 of the New Testament? Testament, indeed, to the power of the Gospel. Even Homer’s Iliad is fewer by about 37 times. A graph makes the disparity even more striking. When it’s the Bible versus ‘everything else’, ‘everything else’ pales, mathematically speaking, into insignificance. And I haven’t even included the numerous commentaries about the New Testament which would explode the figures into the stratosphere.
Another measure we can look at is the time interval between the best-estimate date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript. Disputants like to claim “Oh well, the New Testament was written long after the events it describes”. Actually, when the Bible is compared to other works from about the same era, one finds that the intervals involved for the Bible are relatively short. The bars on the graph below show the time interval from the creation of each work (bottom of bar) to the date of the first extant copy (top of bar) of each manuscript. Using the same criteria as historians use for other works, the New Testament compares favourably – in fact it appears to be more reliable than other ancient texts. I have arranged these by date of composition, so that it is clear which documents are contemporaneous with each other.
So now, when you are challenged about the reliability of the Gospels, please share with your friends these facts and figures. There are numerous other points that can be made regarding the Resurrection of Christ as a real event, and I encourage you to go and see the film, The Case for Christ, when it is released next month. And for a Catholic version on a similar theme, try Dr Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus – written in a more scholarly style, with much additional data, but still accessible to the general reader.
Wishing all readers a joyful and blessed Easter!