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Manuscript Evidence - New Testament Reliability

Reliability of the New Testament as Historical Documents

The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. (Psalms 12:6-7)

The God of the bible has made many absolute claims that His words (not ideas) are His responsibility to preserve, and that because He is God we can be assured that He will keep His promise..

There are an amazing number of ancient manuscripts extant(still existing today):

5,000 Greek manuscripts

10,000 Latin

9,000 other

These total over 24,000 manuscript copies or portions of the New Testament. These are dated from 100 to 300 years after the originals. Although there are no original manuscripts existing today, the number and similarity of copies allows scholars to reconstruct the originals.

The crucial question remains:

Since we don't have any original copies or scraps of the Bible, can we reconstruct them well enough from the existing manuscript evidence we do have so they give us a true and accurate rendering of the original?

Procedure for Testing a Document's Validity

All ancient documents go through the same test, whether they are of spiritual nature or non-spiritual nature. The God of the bible has no problem with scrutiny or close examination. He is the God who says, "test all things".

These tests are:

Bibliographical (i.e, the textual tradition from the original document to the copies and manuscripts of that document we possess today)

Imagine if the original Declaration of Independence was somehow destroyed. Still we would have thousands and thousands of copies. Now imagine our country was destroyed somehow and unvisited for three thousand years. If archaeologists were to find thousands of copies of the Declaration in their digs in our country and compare them with other copies that they had found in other languages in countries, could they be certain, that even though they didn't have the original autograph, that they still had the original words of the original autograph. The answer would be an emphatic yes. The same is true of our bible today.

I believe as one examines the facts they can be comforted by those facts that no body of ancient literature in the world enjoys such a wealth of positive proof of original preservation as does the New Testament documents.

Internal evidence (what the document claims for itself)

In other words, the testimony of the New Testament authors themselves such as in:

For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty (2 Peter 1:16)."what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life" (1 John 1:1).(see also - Luke 1:1-3, 3:1, John 21:24; Acts 26:24-26, 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1-3)

External evidence

3. How the document squares or aligns itself with facts, dates, persons from its own contemporary world.

The New Testament

The Greek Manuscript Evidence

There are more than 4,000 different ancient Greek manuscripts containing all or portions of the New Testament that have survived to our time. These are written on different materials.


During the early Christian era, the writing material most commonly used was papyrus. This highly durable reed from the Nile Valley was glued together much like plywood and then allowed to dry in the sun. In the twentieth century many remains of documents (both biblical and non-biblical) on papyrus have been discovered, especially in the dry, arid lands of North Africa and the Middle East.


Another material used was parchment. This was made from the skin of sheep or goats, and was in wide use until the late Middle Ages when paper began to replace it. It was scarce and more expensive; hence, it was used almost exclusively for important documents.


1. Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siniaticus

a. These are two excellent parchment copies of the entire New Testament which date from the 4th century (325-450 A.D.).

2. Older Papyrii

a. Earlier still, fragments and papyrus copies of portions of the New Testament date from 100 to 200 years (180-225 A.D.) before Vaticanus and Sinaticus. The outstanding ones are the Chester Beatty Papyrus and the Bodmer Papyrus II, XIV, XV .

From these five manuscripts alone, we can construct:

All of Luke, John, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and portions of Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Revelation. Only the Pastoral Epistles (Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy) and the General Epistles (James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1, 2, and 3 John) and Philemon are excluded.

3. The oldest Fragment

a. Perhaps the earliest piece of Scripture surviving is a fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33 and 37. It is called the Rylands Papyrus and dates from 130 A.D., having been found in Egypt. The Rylands Papyrus has forced the critics to place the fourth gospel back into the first century, abandoning their earlier assertion that it could not have been written then by the Apostle John.

This manuscript evidence creates a bridge of extant papyrus and parchment fragments and copies of the New Testament stretching back to almost the end of the first century.

Versions (Translations)

In addition to the actual Greek manuscripts:

There are more than 1,000 copies and fragments of the New Testament in Syria, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, and Ethiopic, as well as 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate, some of which date back almost to Jerome's original translation in 384 - 400 A.D.

Early Church Writers

A further witness to the New Testament text is sourced in the thousands of quotations found throughout the writings of the Church Fathers (the early Christian clergy [100-450 A.D.] who followed the Apostles and gave leadership to the fledgling church, beginning with Clement of Rome (96 A.D.).

It has been observed that if all of the New Testament manuscripts and Versions mentioned above were to disappear overnight, it would still be possible to reconstruct the entire New Testament with quotes from the Church Fathers, with the exception of fifteen to twenty verses!

A Comparison

The evidence for the early existence of the New Testament writings is undeniable for anyone who will look at the evidence. The wealth of materials for the New Testament becomes even more significant when we compare it with other ancient documents which have been accepted without question.

If the critics of the Bible dismiss the New Testament as reliable information, then they must also dismiss the reliability of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Homer, and the other authors.

On the other hand, if the critics acknowledge the historicity and writings of those other individuals, then they must also retain the historicity and writings of the New Testament authors; after all, the evidence for the New Testament's reliability is far greater than the others. The Christian has substantially superior criteria for affirming the New Testament documents than he does for any other ancient writing. It is good evidence on which to base the trust in the reliability of the New Testament.

Author Date Written Earliest Copy Approximate Time Span between original & copy Number of Copies Accuracy of Copies
Lucretius died 55 or 53 B.C. 1100 yrs 2 ---
Pliny 61-113 A.D. 850 A.D. 750 yrs 7 ---
Plato 427-347 B.C 900 A.D. 1200 yrs 7 ---
Demosthenes 4th Cent. B.C. 1100 A.D. 800 yrs 8 ---
Herodotus 480-425 B.C. 900 A.D. 1300 yrs 8 ---
Suetonius 75-160 A.D. 950 A.D. 800 yrs 8 ---
Thucydides 460-400 B.C. 900 A.D. 1300 yrs 8 ---
Euripides 480-406 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1300 yrs 9 ---
Aristophanes 450-385 B.C. 900 A.D. 1200 10 ---
Caesar 100-44 B.C. 900 A.D. 1000 10 ---
Livy 59 BC-AD 17 --- ??? 20 ---
Tacitus circa 100 A.D. 1100 A.D. 1000 yrs 20 ---
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. 1100 A.D. 1400 49 ---
Sophocles 496-406 B.C. 1000 A.D. 1400 yrs 193 ---
Homer (Iliad) 900 B.C. 400 B.C. 500 yrs 643 95%
New Testament 1st Cent. A.D. (50-100 A.D. 2nd Cent. A.D. (c. 130 A.D. f.) less than 100 years 5600 99.5%


In his book, The Bible and Archaeology, Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, stated about the New Testament, "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.

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