Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?
Based on the F.F. Bruce's The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?
and Norman Geisler's General Introduction to the Bible.
To gain some perspective on this concern, let's first take a look at the manuscript evidence behind other ancient histories, works that form the basis for our modern study of history, and whose reliability we do not ordinarily question. For Caesar's Gallic Wars written between 100 and 44 B.C. we rely upon 10 copies the earliest of which dates to 900 A.D. A gap of a thousand years, therefore, separates the earliest copies of Caesar's work and the earliest extant copies of that work.
The Annals of Tacitus the Roman historian were originally written about 100 A.D., and, similar to the case of Caesar's Gallic Wars, a thousand-year hiatus exists between their composition and the 20 extant copies, the earliest of which dates to 1100 A.D.
Pliny the Younger, Roman statesman and writer, wrote his history sometime between 61 and 113 A.D. There are only 7 copies of this work dating to 850 A.D. leaving a gap of 750 years from the date of original composition.
Thucidides, the Athenian historian, composed his work between 460 and 400 B.C. While a few papyrus manuscript scraps have survived, dating to the beginning of the Christian era, only 8 complete copies exist dating to 900 A.D. leaving a gap of 1300 years from the time of their composition.
Herodotus, the Greek historian who is regarded as "the father of history," wrote between 480 and 425 B.C. In his case, as well, there are only 8 extant copies the earliest of which dates to 900 A.D. leaving a gap of 1300 years.
Livy wrote his Roman history between 59 B.C. and 17 A. D. Other than a fourth-century fragment which has survived, most of the other manuscripts date to the tenth century leaving a gap of approximately a thousand years between original composition and available manuscripts.
These are the primary source material for our modern study of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Despite the sparsity of manuscript evidence and the enormous gap between original writing and extant manuscripts, there is no public outcry or complaint that the modern world is getting cheated in its history of the ancient Greek and Roman world. We take it for granted that the events described on their pages actually happened and that they happened in the manner described.
Yet when we come to the New Testament documents, we seem to be more much more demanding for manuscript evidence. And well we should, for the events described in the New Testament are of a completely different character than those of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. The incarnation of the Son of God and the events attending that incarnation are in an entirely different category than Caesar's wars or the politics of Athens. Just as the nature of the events described, so is the nature of the manuscript evidence in another category. So overwhelming is the manuscript evidence for the events described in the New Testament, it is simply beyond comparison with any other ancient history.
For the New Testament written between 50 and 100 A.D. we have well over 5000 ancient Greek manuscripts. Let us consider a few of the most famous ones. A Greek manuscript of the entire New Testament, the famous Codex Vaticanus, now in the Vatican Library in Rome, and the Codex Sinaiticus, the greatest treasure in the British Museum, both date to approximately 350 A.D. Codex Alexandrinus, also in the British Museum, was written in the fifth century, and Codex Bezae in the Cambridge University Library was written in the fifth or sixth century. The latter contains the Gospels and Acts in both Greek and Latin. The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri brought to public attention in 1931 contain most of the New Testament writings. One of these papyri contains the four Gospels and Acts and dates to the first half of the third century. Still another contains Paul's letters and Hebrews and dates to the beginning of the third century. One containing Revelation dates to the second half of the third century.
A book published in 1935 entitled Fragments of an Unknown Gospel and other Christian Papyri, by H. I. Bell and T. C.. Skeat, depict some papyri dated no later than 150 A.D. which were originally thought to contain portions of a fifth Gospel with strong resemblances to the original four, but which more probably represents paraphrases of material in the other four Gospels. Still earlier is a fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33, 37f, now located in the John Rylands Library, in Manchester, England. This fragment dated around 130 A.D. proves that the Gospel according to John was circulating in Egypt within approximately forty years after its composition which, according to tradition, took place in Ephesus between 90 and 100 A.D. Nearly the entire first fourteen chapters of John and substantial portions of the last seven chapters are contained in Papyrus Bodmer II dated about 200 A.D. Its discovery was announced in 1956 by the Bodmer Library of Geneva.
In addition to the more than 5000 ancient Greek manuscripts, there are approximately 9000 early versions of the New Testament including the Coptic, the Itala, the Syriac, the Gothic, the Vulgate, the Armenian, Georgian, and the Ethiopic ranging from the 3rd century A.D., in the case of the Coptic and Itala, to the 6th century in the case of the Ethiopic. There are also approximately 2000 ancient lectionaries which attest to he New Testament documents.
Even if all this evidence were to disappear suddenly from the face of the earth-the 5000 Greek New Testament manuscripts, the 9000 early versions, and the more than 2000 lectionaries--we could practically validate the entire New Testament from the quotations from it contained in the writings of the early church fathers of the first and second centuries. When we search out the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Barnabas, Hermas, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria, we discover 2400 quotations from the New Testament. All but three of the 27 books are quoted.
From the second and third century writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Eusebius, we can practically reconstruct the entire New Testament. Indeed every New Testament verse is quoted except eleven! Little wonder that a former history professor at my alma mater was quoted as saying that as an historian, he was compelled to accept the resurrection of Jesus as an historical fact!
If the New Testament were a collection of secular documents, their authenticity would be universally accepted as being beyond all doubt. For an historian, the documentary evidence is simply overwhelming. The possibilities for checking and cross-checking the accuracy of the New Testament documents are unparalleled in any other ancient documents. Accordingly, the degree of accuracy of our modern versions of the New Testament, allowing for the margin of discrepancy among the extant manuscripts on which they are based, is in the 99.9 percentile.