One of the most common objections given in attempt to refute the Bible is that it is just a collection of stories written by men. Yet even within this objection there are many different claims that people have made about the Scriptures that have absolutely no backing. Some claim the Bible is plagiarized from other ancient near eastern texts and legends. Some claim that one man with a great imagination sat down and wrote the entire thing. Some claim the Bible has been corrupted over time, so much so that we cannot trust that what we have today represents anything close to the originals.
Though many will boldly hold to these objections, the problem is there is absolutely no evidence supporting them. You cannot accept everything that you hear as true – you must do some examination to see where the evidence lies. Unfortunately for most it is simply more convenient to believe one of these lies rather than to look into the historicity of the biblical text for themselves. What does the evidence point to? Can we trust the Bible?
The point of this article is not to lay out all of the evidence in textual criticism available to us today, but to focus in on one point in particular as it relates to the New Testament texts. Manuscript evidence is perhaps one of the most convincing arguments that the New Testament as we have it today is exactly as it was in the first century. The first century apostles and authors wrote down the first copies of the New Testament in Greek. Logically the more manuscripts that are available for us to compare and read, the more confidence we can put in the correct transmission of the text. Also, the reading of the oldest manuscripts would be most preferable, seeing as limited time would have passed from the original autographs and the manuscript copy being made, leaving less room for error.
Not counting copies of the New Testament that were made in other languages (Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Nubian), including fragments of the text we have well over 5300 manuscripts (MSS)! This might not seem astounding to many, but it is to students of manuscript authority. The next closest historical piece of literature that has the most MSS evidence for what we read today is The Iliad written by Homer. There are only 643 manuscripts that have ever been uncovered that give us the text of The Iliad. The next closest is Aristotle’s writing’s – of which we have only 49 MSS. That is a staggering difference! And when one takes into account the number of MSS of the New Testament that were copied into other languages as well, that gives us an additional 9300 copies! By sheer number of manuscripts, the New Testament is the most historically authenticated that ever has and ever will exist.
Number of manuscripts is not the only important factor however, as the date in which they were written and the level to which the readings agree is also drastically important. The original authors of the New Testament wrote in the first century, between the years of 40 A.D. to as late as 90 A.D. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament is known as the Codex Sinaiticus, and dates to around 350 A.D. Others that contain almost all of the New Testament date even earlier, such as the Codex Vaticanus dated as early as 325 A.D. When it comes to specific books or fragments, we have near complete copies of books written as early as 150 A.D. (Bodmer Papyrus, the Gospel of John) or even fragments of texts that date as early as 125 A.D. (John Rylands Fragment of John’s Gospel). That means we have manuscript evidence of the biblical text as early as within 50 years of the original text! As a whole, the MSS provided allow us to recover with certainty up to 99% of the original New Testament text!
There is a drastic drop off with any other historical text. For example, let us look again at Homer and Aristotle. Homer wrote The Iliad around 900 B.C., but the earliest manuscripts we have available of his work dates around 400 B.C – a difference of 500 years. That leaves a long period of time for alterations and error, leaving it more difficult to accurately recover the original text. Of the 643 manuscripts we have, they agree with one another in content a little over 90% of the time. Now examine the works of Aristotle – who lived in the 4th century B.C. Yet the oldest copies of his writings we have date to 1100 A.D. – a period of over 1400 years! Therefore, if one is going to call into question the accuracy with which the New Testament was passed down, one must first dismiss all the works of Plato, Aristotle, and even Homer before they would dismiss the New Testament.
Ultimately there are many more things to discuss when it comes to authenticating the Bible. Time would fail us to discuss secular historical evidence, archaeological evidence, the citations from early church fathers, and much more. We must examine the evidence as it is – and the evidence overwhelmingly teaches us that we can trust the authenticity of the Bible as we have it today!
*For citations, see Guide to Christian Apologetics by Doug Powell. See Chapters 6-8, other sources cited included at the end of each of his chapters.