Significance of the Large Number of New Testament Manuscripts

New Testament scholars painstakingly study all aspects of every ancient copy of the Bible, going to tedius detail to catalog and evaluate the documents. Many of these men spend their entire lives going over details of the ancient New Testament documents, so that they have them counted, divided by type, etc.

Bible scholars are regularly discovering more ancient copies of the New Testament. Four more were discovered just this last month by scholars from The Center For New Testament Manuscripts (see here). This organization is led by Daniel Wallace, the scholar from Dallas Theological Seminary who has written Greek grammars and is trying to photograph and publish every New Testament manuscript in digital format.

The number of manuscripts of the New Testament now stands at over 5,800, and when we include the quotations that are included in personal correspondence letters from one church father to another, the number rises to many thousands. Just from the personal correspondence alone, scholars can reconstruct the entire New Testament, except for eleven verses.

The significance of the large number of early copies has already been dealt with on this blog. See here and here. 

Today we will deal with a couple of criticisims that are aimed at the manuscript evidence. The first is that many of these manuscript copies are but fragments, portions of pages that have survived, containing but a few verses, where the rest of the document has been lost. The accusation is that since many of these fragments only contain a few verses, then their accuracy cannot be trusted.

In response, we merely point to the fact that the issue is not creating an accurate copy of the original, since as we have pointed out, we can do that from merely the personal correspondence alone. Further, many of the manuscripts are not small small fragments, but complete or near complete versions of the New Testament books. Further still, when we add up all the fragments, they are more than sufficient to provide a complete, accurate, consistent copy of the New Testament books. Next, we point out that the existence of even the fragments is significant. For the fragments were originally entire books…….no one originally created a fragment, but rather created an entire book, of which only a portion survived. Since entire books were created, we can compare the fragments we have against the complete books that exist, and conclude that the degree of accuracy between the two is representative of the entire missing book. So we can categorically disprove the idea that the text or meaning of the New Testament is compromised due to many of the manuscripts being fragments.

The large number of these documents that exist today point to the even larger that must have been circulating at the time, for surely not all of the documents survived. Many of the early copies were made on papyrus, a rather inexpensive paper that did not wear well. We must also keep in mind that prior to Constantine in the early 300’s, it was illegal to be a Christian, often being a capital offense. People who copied and circulated these documents did so at the risk of their lives, certainly not for power or glory. That we have any documents from this period at all is amazing, and that we have such a large number prior to the printing press is quite remarkable.

The critic is also very quick to point out that the existence of an early copy of a book does not prove that the contents are accurate. While this is true per se, we have dealt with this issue previously, and will do so again in the future. For now, we merely point out that if a large number of copies of a book are in circulation, it becomes impossible for one person or one group to create a forgery. The oft-suggested criticism that a few power-hungry church leaders invented the bible to win arguments over their opponents and to control the people of the church is a criticism that, when weighed agaist the documentary evidence, vanishes in the whiff of foul-smelling vapor.

The large number of copies and the early age of these documents, when combined with the known corroboration of secular history, give us an astronimically high degree of confidence that the Bible we now hold are the accurately recorded words of eyewitnesses to the events.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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