Monday, March 22, 2010

Nerd Stuff: NT Manuscripts

Here's another nerd blog that I first wrote up for my church.


It seems that the Bible is constantly coming under attack as being hopelessly full of errors and contradictions, and that the many manuscripts on which our translations are based are unreliable. The critique normally takes the line that too large a gap of time exists between the original documents and the earliest copies we have found. Hundreds of years have elapsed, they tell us, between the first writing and the copies we now possess. Who knows how the documents might have been altered? Who knows what absurd theological points (like the divinity of Christ) have been inserted in the interim? But is this really the case? I suppose I wouldn't be writing this if it were.

The New Testament is far and away the best-attested ancient document. What I mean by this is that there are hundreds and hundreds of early "copies", or manuscripts that date to within a reasonable amount of time to the first composition of the various books. The number of manuscripts (whether in whole or fragments) is estimated at 5000, with some dating to within a few decades, and many within three centuries.

By means of comparison, consider the second best-attested ancient document, Homer's Iliad. This epic Greek poem has about a tenth of the manuscripts as the NT, and the earliest document we have was written roughly 1200 years after Homer first composed the story. The best document, called Venetus A, is preserved from the tenth century AD, almost 2000 years later!

What we have with the NT is an embarrassment of riches. So many documents. So early. So similar. Consider one document, called p52. It contains a portion of the gospel of John, which was written in about 90. Scholars have dated p52 to about 125. You can do the math. 35 years! Less than a generation! Consider also that p52 was written in Alexandria, Egypt, and John wrote his gospel in Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey. That means that the Gospel of John was circulating throughout the Roman Empire in less than a generation.

Consider also Codex Sinaiticus, which was written in the middle of the 4th century and contains the complete New Testament, as well as about half of the Old Testament. Again, you can do the math. The whole New Testament was compiled and copied less than 300 years after it was written. When you consider that we're dealing with multiple authors at different times from varying locations working without the benefit of modern technology, this is truly a remarkable feat. So don't let Dan Brown get you down. The New Testament is the most reliable ancient document around.

No comments: