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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In order to determine its reliability, we need to test the New Testament with the same criteria that all historical documents are tested.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 p. 73]

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]

  1. 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]

  2. 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]

  3. 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 be used?

Why is it important to establish that the New Testament is a reliable historical document?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.

Study Three - Part 1 - The Bibliographical Test

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:

  1. How many copies of the document in question are available and what variances exist between the copies? [7]

    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.[7]

  2. What length of time passed between the original and the earliest copies? [7]

    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 the copies.[7]

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 p. 39]

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. [7] 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 [7], for example:

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 [7]:

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 authentic.

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. [7]

Textual criticism of the New Testament documents is no different from textual criticism of any other secular texts. [3] 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. [8]

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 here.

  • 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! [8]

  • No other ancient work is available in so many copies and languages, and yet all these various versions agree in content. [1 p. 194]

  • 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] & [8]

  • The New Testament documents could not have been corrupted without a great outcry on the part of all orthodox Christians. [1 p. 195]

  • 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 p. 51]

  • 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. [8]

  • 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. [8]

    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. [7] Most historians accept the textual accuracy of other ancient works on far less adequate manuscript grounds than is available for the New Testament.[8]

    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.

    Discussion questions and exercises

    • 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 important?



     

     

     

     
    • 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?



     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Discussion Groups

    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 written?
    - 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 was written?

    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 confessing?
    - What evidence is there for the claim that the NT contains created fictions and/or lies?

    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?

     


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