Compare Other Ancient Texts with the New Testament

How Do Other Ancient Texts Compare to the New Testament?

Posted: 18 Oct 2012 06:00 AM PDT

Post Author: Bill Pratt

When considering the trustworthiness of the New Testament (NT) documents, the first question we need to ask is, “Have these documents been accurately transmitted to us since they were originally written?”

In order to answer this question about the textual transmission of documents of the ancient world, historians look at the number of existing manuscript copies (MSS) of the original text and they look at the time gap between the earliest existing MSS and the date when the original document was written. The more MSS, the better we are able to reconstruct the original. The shorter the time gap, the better we are able to reconstruct the original. This is referred to as the bibliographical test.

Christians have pointed out for decades that the NT documents are far superior in both dimensions of the bibliographical test. There are more existing MSS and the time gap for those MSS is the shortest when compared to other documents of ancient history.

Clay Jones, professor at Biola University, has recently updated the data that compares the Greek NT documents (as a group) to other documents of ancient history in an article published in the Christian Research Journal. Below are the results of his research:

Author Work Date Written Earliest MSS Time Gap Number of MSS
Homer Iliad 800 BC c. 400 BC 400 1757
Herodotus History 480-425 BC 10th C 1350 109
Sophocles Plays 496-406 BC 3rd C BC 100-200 193
Plato Tetralogies 400 BC AD 895 1300 210
Caesar Gallic Wars 100-44 BC 9th C 950 251
Livy History of Rome 59 BC-AD 17 Early 5th C 400 150
Tacitus Annals AD 100 AD 850 750-950 33
Pliny, the Elder Natural History AD 49-79 5th C fragment: 1; Rem. 14-15th C 400 200
Thucydides History 460-400 BC 3rd C BC 200 96
Demosthenes Speeches 300 BC Some fragments from 1 C BC 1100+ 340
Greek NT AD 50-100 AD 130 40 5795

The table illustrates that the Greek NT does extremely well with both the time gap (40 years) and the number of MSS (5795), as compared to all the other documents in the table. But the situation is even better for the NT because we haven’t yet mentioned all the MSS of the NT in other languages.

Jones reveals that there are over 2000 Armenian, almost 1000 Coptic, 6 Gothic, more than 600 Ethiopian, more than 10000 Latin, more than 350 Syriac, 43 Georgian, and more than 4000 Slavic manuscript copies of the NT.

The only conclusion one can reasonably reach is that we have more confidence in the textual transmission of the NT than in any other document of ancient history. To question the transmission accuracy of the NT texts we have today is to question all of ancient history.

The Myth of dying and rising gods

What Are the Parallels Between Jesus and the “Divine Men” of the Ancient World? Part 3

Posted: 08 Oct 2012 06:00 AM PDT

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Mythicists claim that the stories about Jesus were merely copied from other pagan myths circulating around the Roman Empire in the first century. If this is true, it does cast some doubt on the uniqueness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and it certainly makes one wonder if all the stories about Jesus were borrowed from other sources.

In order to discuss this claim, I will call to the stand one Bart Ehrman, a man who is no friend to Christianity. Ehrman was interviewed by Ben Witherington in a seven-part series last summer after Ehrman’s book, Did Jesus Exist?, was published.

After Witherington’s initial question about parallel accounts of “divine men” in the ancient world, he zeros in on the alleged accounts of dying and rising gods. He asks, “Why do you think this theory of dying and rising gods became so popular in the 20th century, and what caused its scholarly demise?” Here is Ehrman’s answer:

Yes, for a long time it was widely thought that dying and rising gods were a constant staple of ancient pagan religions, so that when Christians claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they were simply borrowing a common “motif” from pagan religions. This view was first popularized by Sir James George Frazer at the beginning of the twentieth century in his enormously influential (and very large) book, The Golden Bough. (As I explain in Did Jesus Exist, Frazer did in his day what Joseph Campbell did in ours – popularized the view that at heart, all religions are basically the same).

This view was exploded by Jonathan Z. Smith in the late 1980s, chiefly in an article on the “dying-rising gods” in the scholarly and authoritative Encyclopedia of Religion. Smith showed that the notion that there was a widespread category of gods who died and rose again was, in fact, a modern myth, not based on a careful reading of ancient sources. In his own words:

“The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation , must be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts. . . . All the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case the deities return but have not died; in the second case the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.” (cited in Jonathan Z. Smith, “Dying and Rising Gods,” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. Lindsay Jones, (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005 [original: 1987]), 4:2535).

Ehrman summarizes the findings of Smith:

Smith’s findings were based not on new discoveries, but on a more careful reading of ancient sources. Unfortunately, even though these findings have made a major impact on the research of New Testament scholars and other scholars of Christian antiquity, they appear to be unknown to the mythicists, many of whom continue to make the now dated claim that the resurrection of Jesus was simply invented along the lines of the common pagan myth.

More from Witherington and Ehrman in part 4 of the series.

Related Posts

1. What Are the Parallels Between Jesus and the “Divine Men” of the Ancient World? Part 2

2. What Are the Parallels Between Jesus and the “Divine Men” of the Ancient World? Part 1

3. Why Should We Not Believe Those Who Claim Jesus Never Existed?

4. Was Individual Resurrection a Common Belief in the Ancient World? Part 1

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