Study Three - Is Scripture reliable as a historical record?
We now need to determine whether we can make use of the New Testament as a
reliable historical record. Does the New Testament contain an accurate account
of the life of Jesus Christ?
In order to determine its reliability, we need to test the New Testament with
the same criteria that all historical documents are tested. One this is done,
we will find that if one discards the Bible as being unreliable, we must discard
almost all ancient literature as being unreliable! [5
There are three tests that should be applied to any ancient documents - the
bibliographical test, the internal evidence test and the external evidence test.
[6 p. 43]
- The Bibliographical test. This is an examination of the textual transmission
by which the documents reach us. In other words, this determines whether or
not the text that we have now is the same as what was originally recorded.
Has the text been changed over time? Can we be sure that the documents of
the New Testament that we now have, are the same as the ones originally recorded?
[6 p. 43]
- The Internal evidence test. This determines whether what is written is
credible (accurate/true) and to what extent. Were the writers of the New Testament
telling the truth? [6 p. 51]
- The External evidence test. This determines whether other historical material
confirms or denies the internal testimony of the documents. What sources are
there, apart from the literature under analysis that substantiates its accuracy,
reliability, and authenticity? [6 p. 54]
To think about: Can you think of any other tests that should
Why is it important to establish that the New Testament is
a reliable historical document? List some possible reasons.
We now look at the New Testament with respect to the three tests.
This is an examination of the textual transmission by which the documents
reached us. As we no longer have the original documents, how reliable are the
copies we currently have? How can we be sure that the documents we have, are
accurate copies of the originals? How can we be sure that there have not been
significant changes or errors made in the process of copying over the years?
In order to establish that we have accurate copies of the original documents,
the Bibliographical test examines the following questions:
- How many copies of the document in question are available and what variances
exist between the copies? 
This enables us to compare the copies with each other. The more copies we
have the better the comparisons that we can make. If the copies of a document
are filled with significant differences, then it would not be possible to
know what the original author wrote! But if the variances are few and minor,
then the process of copying over the years has been faithful to the original.
- What length of time passed between the original and the earliest copies?
If the earliest copies we have were written hundreds of years after the original,
a lot of changes could have been made and we wouldn't know about it. But a
short interval of time would increase our assurance in the reliability of
How many copies of New Testament manuscripts are available?
There are now over 5,300 known Greek manuscripts; over 10 000 Latin Vulgate
manuscripts and at least 9300 other early versions (e.g. Ethiopic, Slavic, Armenian,
Arabic). If we add these all together, there are more than 24 000 manuscript
copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today! [5
Lets us compare this amount with the number of copies of other ancient historical
writings: [5 p. 42]
a) The 'Iliad' by Homer has the second greatest number of manuscript
copies of any work of antiquity. There are 643 manuscript copies. Here are some
examples of other works of antiquity:
b) Caesar's "Gallic wars" (10 manuscript copies)
c) Livy (20 manuscript copies)
d) Plato's 'Tetralogies' (7 manuscript copies)
e) Pliny The Younger's 'History' (7 manuscript copies)
f) Sophocles (193 manuscript copies)
The number of manuscript copies of the New Testament far surpasses the number
of copies of any other ancient document.
What difference would it make if there were only a few copies
of the original New Testament?
What length of time passed between the original and the earliest copies?
Several papyrus fragments, which contain significant portions of the New Testament,
have been dated to within 50-150 years of the original New Testament documents.
 Examples include:
a) John Ryland's MS (130 AD) contains a portion of the Gospel of
John and was found in Egypt
b) Bodmer Papyrus II (150-200 AD) contains most of John
c) Chester Beatty Papyri (200 AD) contains major portions of the New Testament
We also have several nearly complete New Testament Greek manuscripts, which
were copied within 300-400 years of the originals ,
a) Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD), found near Mt. Sinai
b) Codex Alexandrinus (400 AD), found near Alexandria in Egypt
c) Codex Vaticanus (325-350AD), located at the Vatican in Rome
In fact, there are 500 different copies of the New Testament that are earlier
than 500 AD. [1 p. 162]
Let us again compare this with other classical manuscripts :
a) The 'Iliad' by Homer - the earliest copy is 500 years removed
from the original
b) Caesar's "Gallic wars" - 1000 years
c) Livy - 350 years (and the earliest copy is only a fragment).
d) Plato's 'Tetralogies' - 1200 years.
e) Pliny The Younger's 'History' - 750 years.
Since scholars accept as generally trustworthy the writings of the ancient
classics, even though the earliest manuscripts were written so long after the
original writings and the number of existing manuscripts is in many instances
so small, it is clear that the reliability of the text of the New Testament
is likewise assured.[6 p. 45]
What difference would it make if our earliest copy of the
New Testament was dated hundreds of years after the original was written?
What variances exist between the copies of the New Testament
The process of critically studying a text, examining the copyists' errors,
omissions, additions and other corruptions which have crept into the text since
it was first written is known as textual criticism. Scholars use this process
to determine how much of the document we are able to recover and designate as
With respect to the New Testament, there are some variations between the many
thousands of manuscripts available. However, the vast majority are very minor
(spelling, differences in phraseology, etc.) and modern translations of the
New Testament text often note the differences in footnotes. 
Textual criticism of the New Testament documents is no different from textual
criticism of any other secular texts.  Having
said this, it is significant to note that textual criticism has been able to
recover the New Testament text with 99% accuracy. We are able to say that 99%
of our current copy of the New Testament documents is an accurate copy of the
originals! Furthermore, no doctrine (core belief) of Christianity is dependent
on any textual variant. 
What is it important that no core belief of Christianity
is dependent on any textual variant?
Comments on Collusion
One objection that is sometimes raised is that the later church conspired
to eliminate discrepancies and made purposeful changes to the text of the New
Testament. Although we examine this claim more thoroughly in the Internal Evidence
Test (the section on possible Gospel Fictions), it is worth making certain points
Textual conspiracies such as are often suggested would be practically impossible
- there is no way that the church could have eliminated ALL known readings of
a given text! 
No other ancient work is available in so many copies and languages, and yet
all these various versions agree in content. [1
The numerous manuscripts were located over a wide geographical distribution
(for example Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy). Yet, there
are only trifling discrepancies. The differences that do exist are quite minor
and are predominately the result of unintentional mistakes. [1
p. 194] & 
The New Testament documents could not have been corrupted without a great
outcry on the part of all orthodox Christians. [1
The quotations of the New Testament books by the early church Fathers all
coincide. [1 p. 195] In fact, the early church
Fathers quote the New Testament so extensively that all of the New Testament,
except for eleven verses, can be found in their existing works. [5
There is no precise time when the falsification could have occurred as the
New Testament documents are cited by the church Fathers in regular and close
succession. The text could not have been falsified before the church Fathers
writings, as then the apostles were still alive and could refute such tampering.
[1 p. 195]
Also working against any idea that some important text was lost or added is
evidence that textual criticism was already in process as early as the second
and third century. Origen complains of negligence and audacity by scribes; Jerome
takes note of various scribal errors, and so on. They were on guard against
any variations. 
The text of the New Testament is every bit as reliable as the text of the
classical works of antiquity. To reject the textual reliability of the New Testament
would be to reverse all the rules of criticism and to reject all the works of
antiquity, since the text of those works is less certain than that of the New
Testament. [1 p. 195]
There is no solid textual evidence to support the idea that the church made
deliberate changes to the New Testament. 
Bibliographical Test Conclusion
The evidence for our New Testament writings is so much greater than the
evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which
no one dreams of questioning.  Most historians
accept the textual accuracy of other ancient works on far less adequate manuscript
grounds than is available for the New Testament.
The New Testament passes the tests for historical documents better than
any other ancient historical document, and we can safely say that our present
New Testament text is a very accurate copy of the original!
Now that we have established the textual reliability of the New Testament,
we need to establish whether its accounts are historically reliable. This
leads us to the internal and external evidence tests.
- How does a person test the reliability of a historical document? What
three tests should be applied to the document? Briefly, describe these tests
in your own words.
- In the Bibliographical test, how do we establish that we have accurate
copies of the original documents?
- How many copies of the New Testament manuscripts are available? How does
this compare to other ancient literature?
- What length of time passed between the original and earliest copies of
the New Testament? How does this compare to other ancient literature?
- What variances exist between the copies of the New Testament? Why is this
- What do you think are the three main arguments against the possibility
of later purposeful changes to the text of the New Testament?
- In your own words, state what the Bibliographical test is, and how and
why the New Testament documents pass it so well?
Preparation required for the following week
Please read the following: Study Three - Part 2 - The Internal Evidence
Test - Introduction
- When was the NT written?
- Does the NT contain "Gospel Fictions" or lies?
- Does the NT contain myths?
Possible discussion questions for when the group meets next week
- What does the internal evidence test aim to achieve?
When was the NT written?
- What difference would it make if the New Testament was written both geographically
and chronologically 'far' from the life of Jesus?
- What sort of 'errors' could a writer make if they were not recording events
as eyewitnesses themselves, or as interviewers of eyewitnesses? Are these
'errors' found in the New Testament? What does this imply about when it was
- Can you think of any references in the New Testament that contain proper
names, dates, cultural details, historical events, customs and opinions of
life in and around Jerusalem?
- Why is it so significant that eyewitnesses were alive when the New Testament
Does the NT contain "Gospel Fictions" or lies?
- What are five good reasons why we can conclude that the New Testament does
not contain created fictions or lies? How would you explain these to points
to a friend?
- If you had to lie, how much punishment would you be able to endure before
- What evidence is there for the claim that the NT contains created fictions
Does the NT contain myths?
- Why do you think this is such a common assumption?
- How does the style of the NT and the style of myth differ? - Why is it so
important that a number of generations need to pass before true history can
be replaced by myth?
- How does the dating of the New Testament, and the Bibliographical test oppose
the necessary requirements for the 'myth' theory?
- How do the miraculous accounts of Jesus differ to the accounts of other
religious leaders such as Buddha and Muhammad?
- What affect on the myth theory does the New Testament writers' claim to
be telling historical fact make?
- What are three good reasons why we can conclude that the New Testament does
not contain myth? How would you explain these points to a friend?