Evidences of Faith

Documentation of the Bible

There are many today who are under the impression that the Bibles we have today are not true to the original documents. Moreover, there are some who still think that the various books of the Bible were not written when the books themselves claim to have been written. Some folks think that the Gospels, for instance, were not eyewitness accounts as they claim to be, but are rather mythical accounts written much later in order to establish the Christians' doctrine. In pursuing this type of question, we are not trying to establish whether the Bible is inspired, but whether it is authentic: whether the text is true to the original, and whether the original books were written when they claim to have been. In this article, we will look at some of the evidence which can help us to answer this type of question.

In order to understand the evidence for the Bible, it is necessary to have a little background. First, we know that the Bible is a collection of books written over a span of some centuries by approximately 40 different authors. These books are divided into two main sections, which we call the Old and New Testaments. There is a span of hundreds of years between the writing of the last Old Testament book, and the first New Testament book. The scholars who study the questions surrounding the Bible's authenticity apply to it the very same tests they apply to all ancient documents (although they tend to apply them a little more rigorously to a book which claims to be inspired by God). These tests cover a variety of subjects, including both internal and external evidence. Internal evidence is what can be determined by looking within the pages of the books themselves: we have looked at some of this in past issues. External evidence includes archaeological and scientific evidence, historical and cultural evidence, and manuscript evidence. A manuscript is a document written by hand. For our current purposes, a manuscript is a document written before the advent of the printing press (ca. 1450 AD). Because of the circumstances of the writing of the Bible, the study of the manuscript evidence is generally divided into two separate areas, one for each Testament. In the interest of space, we will look at some of the evidence for the New Testament only.

First, it is interesting to note that the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament still in existence date much closer to the time of authorship, than is the case with other ancient books. The earliest manuscripts of Herodotus' writings, for example, date approximately 1300 years after his death; and this is not unusual in ancient books. By contrast, there is a fragment of the Gospel of John in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, England, which is dated ca. 125 AD. Since scholars generally agree that John wrote his Gospel at a later date (between 60-90 AD) than the other three Gospel writers, this fragment is especially significant. Moreover, there is a fragment of the Gospel of Matthew found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from before 68 AD: less than 35 years after Jesus' death! In addition to these, there are manuscripts containing the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and most of the Epistles of Paul, dated ca. 200 AD. There are manuscripts of all four Gospels, as well as other New Testament books, from the 200's AD. And in the British Library's manuscript room is the manuscript called Sinaiticus, which is dated ca. 350 AD, and which contains the entire New Testament. In short, the manuscript evidence points to the conclusion that the New Testament was written when it claims to have been written: between ca. 40 - 90 AD.

But the dates of the various manuscripts are not the only important factor. The sheer quantity of them is nothing short of impressive. The earliest New Testament manuscripts were written on papyrus, which is relatively fragile and subject to decay, not unlike paper. If you have seen a newspaper clipping from as recently as the 1960's, you will see it shows signs of deterioration after only 30 years. With this in mind, it is remarkable to think that even one of the early papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament would have survived a span of 1500 years or more. In fact, however, there are over 80 such manuscripts. And these are only the beginning. In the fourth century AD, parchment replaced papyrus as the primary medium for copies of the Bible. There are nearly 3000 parchment manuscripts of the Greek New Testament dating from the fourth century through the fifteenth century, when the printing press took over. By contrast, we only have one manuscript copy of the Annals of Tacitus, who lived ca. 55 - 120 AD: the very same era as the New Testament writings.

So far in our discussion, we have looked only at the manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, which is the language in which it was originally written. In addition to the Greek, however, there is also a large quantity of manuscripts that are "versions", or translations into other languages. The mere fact that the New Testament was translated at all is impressive, because it was very unusual to translate a book in ancient times. When one considers how much work would be involved in translating a book when every aspect of every step of the process had to be accomplished by hand, it is no wonder that the task was rarely attempted. And the New Testament was not translated only once, nor was it long after the writing that translations began to appear. The Bible was translated independently into both Latin and Syriac somewhere between 100 - 150 AD. It was translated into Coptic (an Egyptian dialect) in the 200's, Armenian and Gothic in the 300's, Georgian in the 400's, etc. In all, there are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament still in existence. With such a huge number of manuscripts, it is inevitable that variations would arise among them. The question remaining, then, is the extent and significance of these variations. In order to answer this question, we will first consider some more facts regarding the versions.

Each of the translations, of course, began a new tradition. For example, when making copies of the Bible in Armenian, the copyist would not generally have access to the Greek manuscript from which the original translation was made. So, he would have to copy directly from the Armenian translation itself. And likewise in making later revisions of the translation: the revisers would have to go by the existing Armenian, along with whatever Greek editions they had available to them; but they would not have access to the manuscript from which the translation was originally made. And this is so with each of the languages into which the Bible was translated. Thus, when looking at the accompanying chart (appended to the end of this article), keep in mind that each of the vertical lines represents a separate line of transmittal. In determining the accuracy of the text, then, the modern scholars can compare copies of the New Testament in a number of different languages, representing different cultures and different religious points of view.

When we consider the great differences between the various cultures represented by the ancient translations, and the large number of variant doctrines existing in the religions of those cultures, we would expect there to be tremendous differences in the biblical texts. But that is not the case. On the contrary, even with the enormous number of manuscripts, and the diversity of languages, approximately 85% of the New Testament text is not even questioned: in other words, there is no disagreement between the manuscripts for this portion of the text. As to the 15% for which variant readings exist among the manuscripts, most of the variant readings are easily recognized as false, simply because of the overwhelming manuscript evidence against them. As for the tiny portion that remains, most of the variant readings which are not easily dismissed as inauthentic, are so insignificant that they do not substantially change the meaning of the passages in which they occur. In fact, the renowned Bible scholar F.J.A. Hort estimates that the "substantial" variations (those which affect the meaning of the passage) affect only about one one-thousandth of the text. And, even in those few instances wherein the sense of the passage is affected by the variant reading, the actual teaching of scripture remains unchallenged.

In conclusion, we may note that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is truly overwhelming. If we approach the subject objectively, we must admit that all of the manuscript evidence points to the genuineness and authenticity of the books. They were written when they claim to have been written, and by whom they claim to have been written. Moreover, the text we have today is true to the original documents. Any claim, then, that "the Bible has been changed", or that "the Gospels were written generations after the fact", is demonstrably false. Consequently, any argument or doctrine built upon such a claim necessarily falls apart. Whenever we pick up a literal translation of the Bible, we have in our hands a substantially accurate rendition of some authentic - and very important - ancient documents.

Manuscript Chart

e-mail this author at jimrobson@tp.net

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