Is the New Testament Reliable?



The story of the find of the oldest known copy of the New Testament and how it was found is fascinating. It was in 1844 that the German biblical scholar and archaeologist Constantine Tischendorf (1815 – 1874) was touring the East in search of old manuscripts, specifically Biblical documents written by hand, when he uncovered a great find. Throughout his life he searched out old biblical manuscripts to give theology a Greek New Testament which was based on the oldest possible scriptures. Tischendorf had spent his career at the University of Leipzig, and had traveled extensively in search of these lost and forgotten manuscripts of the Bible.

Tischendorf was visiting the Eastern Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai when he noticed a basket filled with pages of an old manuscript. Recognizing right away that these were very important pages, and written in Greek, he asked the librarian about them. To his surprise he was told the pages had been placed in the trash basket for fuel, and two basket loads of such papers had already been burned. Though the monks admitted there were more pages of the manuscript, Tischendorf's enthusiasm made them wary, and they would not show him any more due to his excitement at the find, probably realizing the importance and possible monetary value. Surprisingly though, they did allow Tischendorf to take the 43 pages he had taken from the garbage.

Tischendorf was not about to give up, but it would be many years before he had success. First he returned to the monastery in 1853, but again the monks would not show him the remainder of the manuscript. On his third trip in 1859, Tischendorf returned to the Sinai monastery under the patronage of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, patron of the Greek Orthodox Church. Tischendorf was taken by a monk to a room where he pulled down a cloth-wrapped manuscript which had been stored with some cups and dishes on a shelf above the door. These were the remaining sheets of Codex Sinaiticus and Tischendorf immediately recognized they belonged with the other 43 pages.  He suggested the monastery present the manuscript to the tsar of Russia as protector of the Greek church, which they agreed to do. There it remained in the Russian National Library until it was sold by the Soviets in 1933  to obtain desperately needed foreign capital. They saw it as having no value to them but realizing it had value for others they ended up selling the manuscript to the British Museum for £100,000.

This manuscript became known as the Codex Sinaiticus. The literal meaning of 'Codex Sinaiticus' is the Sinai Book. The ambition of the Codex to include the entire canon of Christian scriptures coincides with the adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine the Great and an attempt to define once and for all, or 'codify', the texts that qualified as sacred scripture. Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important witnesses to the Greek text of the Septuagint (the Old Testament in the version that was adopted by early Greek-speaking Christians) and the Christian New Testament. The Greek Septuagint in the Codex includes books not found in the Hebrew Bible and regarded in the Protestant tradition as apocryphal, such as 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4 Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach. Appended to the New Testament are the Epistle of Barnabas and 'The Shepherd' of Hermas.

To date, the majority of the Codex remains in the British Library. Dating from about the middle of the fourth century, Sinaiticus is one of the most important and earliest complete manuscripts of the New Testament ever found. There are New Testament manuscripts older than Sinaiticus, but they only contain portions of it. Some of these fragments date from the second century, just fifty years or so after many of the New Testament books were written.

Why is it important to find old copies of the New Testament?
Scholars, and many Christians, want to know how accurate are the words Jesus was supposed to have said. Since the Gospels vary on many of the stories about Jesus, can we trust that there were any eye-witness accounts written down? How long after the death and resurrection of Jesus were these Gospels written? These and other similar questions are important. If the accounts of Jesus were written after the eyewitnesses were dead, no one could verify their accuracy. Yet if the New Testament accounts were written while the original apostles were still alive, then their authenticity could be established. 

Paul's letters are the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ life and teaching. There are thirteen letters, or epistles, included in the New Testament that are claimed to have been written by Paul. Most scholars agree that seven epistles Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians 1 and Philemon were most likely written by Paul. Six others are disputed: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. The reasons stated are 1) that the history presented in the disputed letters do not match what one finds in the book of Acts; 2) the vocabulary is much different in the disputed letters than in the undisputed letters of Paul; 3) and there are stylistic differences in the disputed letters. For example, approximately one third of the vocabulary within the letters is not found anywhere else in Paul’s letters and over thirty-five names are also not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings.

Jesus is believed to have been crucified in 30 C.E. at the age of 34, and the oldest writings appeared after 75 C.E. which leaves a forty year gap for his teachings to become known in Greek and finally written down after the scattering of the Jews from 70-90 C.E. By the 2nd century, hundreds of texts had been written about Jesus and about people who knew him, including thirty gospels purportedly by the disciples themselves. The oldest fragments known are two small pieces from 125 C.E., one from an unknown gospel and one from the Gospel of John. 

We know some of the New Testament writers claimed to be eyewitnesses of Jesus. The apostle Peter stated, "For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).

The Bibliographical Test
Christian apologists use the bibliographical test to examine manuscript reliability. The bibliographical test compares the closeness of the New Testament’s oldest extant manuscripts to the date of its autographs (the original handwritten documents) and the sheer number of the New Testament’s extant manuscripts with the number and earliness of extant manuscripts of other ancient documents such as Homer, Aristotle, and Herodotus. While I could find no references for these figures, they are promulgated over the Internet and hopefully have some basis of truth. They state that more than 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament exist today in the original Greek language. Many of these manuscripts are merely fragments, while others are virtually complete books. Counting other language translations, there are 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 others in ancient languages – dating from the second to the fifteenth century. The conclusion is that there are more New Testament manuscripts copied with greater accuracy and earlier dating than for any secular classic from antiquity.

Benjamin Warfield (1851 – 1921), professor of theology at Princeton Seminary, stated:

If we  compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must... declare it to be marvelously correct.  Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied -- a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words -- such has been the providence of God in preserving for His Church in each and every age a competently exact text of the Scriptures, that not only is the New Testament unrivaled among the ancient writings in the purity of it text as actually transmitted and kept in use, but also in the abundance of testimony which has come down to us for castigating its comparatively infrequent blemishes.

The average gap between the original composition and the earliest copies for other ancient texts is over 1,000 years. The New Testament, however, has a fragment within one generation from its original composition. One site states that according to a Leo Jagany there are 86,000 quotations of the New Testament as per Dean Burgon's index of New Testament citations of early writers housed in the British Museum.  Even critical scholar John A. T. Robinson has admitted, “The wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world.” (From The Text of the New Testament, pg. 36)

Historians verify reliability by looking at internal clues. Likewise, scholars have sought to verify the New Testament accounts by the same clues. Christian apologist Josh McDowell in The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, set out to prove that the Christian Faith was wrong, and ended up becoming a Christian himself. His book goes into great detail how the books of the Bible were chosen, the Bible's reliability and why, the archaeological discoveries supporting the Bible, as well as a large section on Jesus. It is a good book to have to understand why the Bible is truth, especially with best selling author Bart D. Ehrman's books refuting the Bible and everything in it. Unlike McDowell, Erhrman was a Christian who became an agnostic atheist after wrestling with the philosophical problems of evil and suffering connected to God. While his books can be very convincing on their own, they pale in comparison to the many Christian authors who share why the Bible is reliable.

Two other cross checks on the accuracy of the manuscripts remain: ancient versions and citations by the early church Fathers known as "patristic quotations." By the 3rd and 4th Centuries the New Testament was translated into Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, and many others. These texts helped missionaries reach new cultures in their own language as the Gospel spread and the Church grew.

Paul Barnett says that the "Scriptures...gave rise to an immense output of early Christian literature which quoted them at length and, in effect, preserved them." (Barnett, Paul, Is the New Testament History?) Metzger notes the amazing fact that "if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, [the patristic quotations] would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament. (Metzger, Bruce M., The Text of the New Testament)

In today's computer age knowledge is more easily accessible than ever, for good and bad. The current craze is "false news" and certain sources on the internet seem to take pride in the fact that anything can be refuted and is. Christians are being tested on their faith more than ever. While early Christians had their faith tested with their lives on the line for being Christian, our current test is "can we retain our faith with so much propaganda in the world to destroy it?"

In conclusion some people, especially in the New Age genre, have toted the idea that the Bible has been translated "so many times" that it has become corrupted through stages of translating, giving them justification to add to the Bible what they believe has been mistranslated or erroneously taken out. That would probably be true if the translations were being made from other translations, but they are not, as we learn that translations are actually made directly from original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic source texts based on thousands of ancient manuscripts. The New Testament is humanity's most reliable ancient document.