Is The New Testament Reliable?
Critics of Christianity often claim that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions, historically inaccurate, and has been riddled with changes over the many years of translation. However, approaching the New Testament like one would approach any document from antiquity reveals something drastically different.
Dating the New Testament letters can be difficult and often leads to a difference of opinion among scholars. However, the majority of scholars – even the non-believing – agree that the four Gospels and Acts were written within a few decades (at max a century) of the time of the events recorded. This means the English translation of the New Testament you own is based on a very early recording of the events it tells. So goes the criticism of Christians adding to the New Testament over the centuries.
Number of Greek Manuscripts
We do not have the autographs, or original copies of the New Testament letters. At first, this sounds detrimental, but this is often the case when it comes to literature from antiquity. What we do have are very many early copies of the original. How many? This is hard to say for a few reasons. First, there are many still being discovered. Second, some are destroyed, or lost. Third, there are some in private collections. However, a good estimate would be 5,600+ Greek Manuscripts. There are (tens of) thousands of other early manuscripts in other languages, as well. I attest to the Greek manuscripts here because the New Testament was originally written in Greek.
The earliest Greek manuscript is the John Rylands Papyrus of John (P52) which is dated to 125-130 AD. With this, and the thousands of other manuscripts, scholars are able to piece together this puzzle of antiquity and re-create the original manuscripts as best possible. The more manuscripts the more accurate the re-creation. When compared to other works of antiquity, the New Testament has a far greater (number) and earlier attestation. No work of antiquity even begins to approach the attestation of the New Testament.
Early Church Fathers Quoting the New Testament
Much could be said here so I will summarize. The earliest quotations by Church Fathers (before 325 AD) include enough quotes that we could re-create an outline of the New Testament even if we didn’t have the manuscripts mentioned above. Since we have both the early manuscripts and these early quotes by church fathers – some of whom knew the apostles personally – we have an even stronger attestation to the New Testament. Some of these church fathers include Clement of Rome (AD 95), Ignatius (AD 70 -110), Polycarp (AD 70-156), Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-212), Tertullian (160-220), Hippolytus (AD 170-235), Justin Martyr (AD 133), Origen (AD 185-253), Cyprian (AD 258), and others. It should be noted that Clement of Alexandria quotes from all but three New Testament Books just a century from their authorship.
Errors in the New Testament
Again, brevity precludes me from divulging too much here. As many have noted, through the years there have been scribal errors in the New Testament text. However, none of these “errors” have a thing to do with Christian doctrine. The “errors” only serve to help us re-create the original text which was error free.
“The purity of text is of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”
-D.A. Carson, Greek Scholar
There is much more that could be said about the New Testament text and perhaps I will write more in a future article. For now, I conclude that we can re-create the original New Testament documents with astounding accuracy. I have not argued about the historical claims within the New Testament and how they align (or don’t) with extra-biblical sources. I am also aware of many other disputable claims within the text. The purpose here was to show how accurately we can arrive at the original manuscript using text criticism. Despite the claims of some, you can be assured – and reasonably believe – that the English version of the New Testament you own is as close to the original autographs as humanly possible. It is no small thing to contemplate this fact. It is almost as if Someone was watching over the process.
Why do you believe the New Testament is, or isn’t reliable?
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