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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.