The Bible God Wrote – Part I

I’ve met a number of scholars who have vast academic credential as historians, antiquarians, philologists, and the like. When our conversations have turned to my trade and they felt like commenting, almost all of them held with two beliefs about the Bible. First, they usually didn’t believe the message of the Bible. Second, there was little doubt in their minds that Bible accurately presents the message the authors intended us to have. Here’s why:

Consider this list of classic histories:

  1. Herodotus wrote his histories around 488-428 BC. The oldest existing copies date around 900 AD. That’s a gap of 1,300 years. And there’s 8 copies.
  2. Thucydides wrote his histories around 460-400 BC. The oldest existing copies date around 900 AD. That’s a gap of 1,300 years. And there’s 8 copies.
  3. Tacitus wrote his histories around AD 100. The oldest existing copies date around 1100AD. That’s a gap of 1,000 years. And there’s 20 copies
  4. Caesar’s Gaelic War was written in 58-50 BC. The oldest existing copies date at 900AD. That’s a gap of 950 years. And there’s 10 copies.
  5. Livy’s Roman History was written somewhere between 59 BC-17 AD. The oldest existing copies date around 900AD. That’s a gap of 900 years. There’s 20 copies.

The first point: We teach ancient Greek and Roman history from these sources and others of similar antiquity. And school textbooks don’t even suggest that there’s any doubt about whether or not the histories are accurate.

The second point: The reliability of an ancient text is measured by the time gap between the composition of the writing and the earliest copies of the writing, plus the number of surviving copies so that scholars can compare them.

So, we teach Greek and Roman history based on writings that generally have a thousand year gap between composition and surviving manuscripts. And we do so even though there are only a handful of such texts.

I was trained at one of the nine seminaries of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. One of my classmates was browsing through the appendices of her Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament and noticed that Papyri 28, a fragment of the Gospel of John, was in the museum of the Pacific School of Religion. So we made an appointment to check it out. A student employee met us and produced an ordinary cardboard box. In the box was a stack of glass “sandwiches” sealed around the edges with masking tape. Between the panes of various sizes were single pages of ancient papyri. Some were military orders, business correspondence, shipping manifests and the like. There was also a 4X6-inch page from someone’s New Testament. On one side was part the report of the feeding of the multitude, right about where Philip was wondering what to do with a small boy’s lunch. The other side had the scene of the disciples being scared spitless at the sight of Jesus walking across the Sea of Galilee.

I opened my 20th century Greek New Testament to the 6th chapter of John and compared the text. It was identical.

Papyri 28 conservatively dates from around 250AD (maybe a lot earlier), about 150 years after the date of the composition of the Gospel of John.

Here’s the deal. The New Testament was written from AD 40-100. The earliest partial manuscripts date at 130AD. Why the partial manuscripts? Well, the New Testament is basically a collection of letters and pamphlets, so of course early copies will not be “complete.” However, the earliest complete New Testaments date around 350 AD. So the time gap between the composition of New Testament writings and the earliest manuscripts is from 30-310 years. Oh yes, there’s over 5000 copies in Greek, another 10,000 in Latin. All of them are listed in the appendices of my Nestle-Aland New Testament, plus their location in case you want to go have a look.

The fact of the matter is, the New Testament is a far more reliable report of what early Christians did and believed than what we think ancient Greeks and Romans believed and did.

A person doesn’t have to believe the message of the New Testament. But there’s no disputing that we have the exact message the authors intend us to have.

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13 Responses to The Bible God Wrote – Part I

  1. Bob Becker says:

    Not sure where you ran into Herodotus and Thucydides, but when I took historiography as an undergraduate [and when I taught it to both under grads and grads], both were subjected to the same kind of critical analysis regarding their reliability as sources that is applied to biblical texts [internal consistency, methodology, corroboration or conflict with other sources, archaeological evidence matched to the texts, etc.]

    None of the classicists I’ve worked with as colleagues over the years [ok, ok, decades] accepted either as “gospel truth” [so to speak].

    • Neal Humphrey says:

      No argument from me there, Dr. Bob. I think it depends on what “level” we’re teaching at. When I was in middle school I thought all that history stuff was “true facts.” The point may be that the textual apparatus in my Nestle-Aland New Testament is far more exhaustive because of the number of manuscripts available.

      A story: So there I am with my head down sorting out my notes at the beginning of a lecture. There’s about 75 seminarians from at least 10 denominations in a class on the later prophets. The professor opens up with the question, “Anyone here read Herodotus?” My hand went up, then my head. It was too late, nobody else had their hand up. So I added, “And I’ve read Thucydides for a second opinion …”

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Interesting stuff, even taking into account Bob’s point.

  3. Ben Pales says:

    Good article Neal!

  4. John Lawrence says:

    As we seek more ancient texts, it is important to remember that the earliest accounts of many peoples were oral presentations. In order to be certain that the accounts did not change, speakers learned the text, word for word, from an older speaker. We know that Homer’s works were being spoken long before it was transcribed. In fact, some say that Homer’s work was actually the foundation of the Greek language.

    Fidelity is not entirely dependent upon writing. It is possible that some of the most ancient texts will never be found simply because they were never written.

  5. Rick Howick says:

    Neal, is this the same Neal who began “Logos” on which I served as and edictor back at SFTS two decades ago? If so, I would love to hear from you.
    Great article (almost as good as seminary). Blessings, Rick Howick

  6. ZENOS says:


    All latter day scripture, and the coarse of humanity hinges ex-
    cluisvely on the “Wentworth Letter”, as a scribed in the writ of
    the Church [of] Jesus Christ-History of the Church:
    Vol. 4 pp. 535-541>Articles of Faith. Re: Admonition of Paul #13.

    I reference only the Tynsdale NKJV 1612 Thomas/Nelson trans.
    The council of contributors place Saint Paul as letters, versus
    Gosple due primarily because Paul and Beloved Timothy addressed
    13 seperate audiences. This after Pauls conversion to his lenghty
    ministry from his Lord, in route to Damascus.
    In Article of Faith #13, the largest division of the Prophet/linguist
    Joseph Smith Judea-Junior, happened to the fledgling flock; when
    Pauls clarion-call “hit the ears” of the gathering of the Corinthians.

    …”Some men are not to marry. For they are neither given [nor]
    taken in marriage. Why some men are borne of there Mothers’
    womb, Others are borne of men, while others are borne of the
    Kingdom…and after going about there [Fathers' Buisness,] live on
    to thrive as the Angels…” {Enhanced commentary of John}

    With the bedrock of Christiandom-{DOM=Dominion of Melchezedek},
    going to and fro in regards to untraditional marriage in society and
    the nucleaur family at large, I hold vailent and strong to heed
    “The Acts of the Apostles”…past and present.

    “…Like Unto Us so the Savior said, and Learn from Days Gone By…”

  7. Chris says:

    Neal, Please tell me you know this is about the most fallacious argument ever concieved. Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, etc, didn’t claim to be writing on behalf of God. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Historians who accept the basic accuracy of their texts don’t go around telling people to obey commands written by Homer in order for them to be saved from eternal damnation. I don’t think any historian would be shocked or even raise an eyebrow to finding evidence that what really happened during some historical event isn’t precisely what Livy’s Roman History described or if any one of Odyesseus’ particular adventures wasn’t in Homer’s original. Even if the modern bible were to accurately reflect the original author’s originial intent, that’s pretty thin sauce for supporting a religious belief. There is general consensus that the Koran pretty accurately reflects the words of its original author, but are you planning to convert to Islam?

    • Neal Humphrey says:

      The blog was about the efficacy of textual evidence. The Bible has it. Scholars who work with biblical texts use the same tools as any other antiquarians. You don’t have to believe the message, but we have the message the authors intend us to have.

  8. Chris says:

    The title of your article is “The Bible God Wrote.” You state “we have the exact message the authors intend us to have.”

    The weakness of another book’s textual evidence in no way enhances the Bible’s textual evidence. Your comparison is specious because the Bible is not just any one book. It is a collection of 66 books and each has varying levels of evidence. More importantly, the Bible is the only book you mention that claims to be the word of God. The necessary level of evidence for accepting the accuracy of a secular historical account or fictional epic versus the necessary level of evidence for accepting the accuracy of a book that is supposedly God’s message to mankind is incomparable.

    Any child who has played the telephone game would accept that the modern biblical books and their autographs probably have some major disparities.

    • Gennett says:

      I am LDS so this should not offend any brother or sister. I find it a GREAT relief to find this information pertaining to the New Testament Scriptures. I say this because of the 8th Article of Faith. Evidence is what is need to verify and as in 1 Thess. 5:21 we are told to “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” So I am “holding fast”. Because this IS good. Being a LDS, I have been told the the Book of Mormon Scriptures are the word of God as well as the Bible. But where is the evidence. Where is the proof. If Heavenly Father ordered the scribes of the Old Testament to keep records and with the letters the Saviors disciples wrote, including the letters to the seven churches of Revelations, and some of these manuscripts we have today, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts found in Qumran, fragment of metal with proven Biblical scripture on them and papri fragments, that have lasted through thousands of years. Where pray tell is the “evidence” of the Book of Mormon Scriptures?

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