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.


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