In meetings for Twin Cities Apologetics, discussion has commonly focused on a specific time gap – the time between when Jesus lived, and when the information about him was written down. But one member of the group recently asked a question about another time gap. The question is:
What is the date of the earliest fragments and complete manuscripts of the New Testament?
This question points to the time gap between when the New Testament books were written, and when the earliest available manuscripts of those books were produced. The question is important because if that time gap is large, we have reason to doubt that those manuscripts accurately represent the original writings. Perhaps people added or changed large sections of the original writing during that time gap, for example.
There is a basic answer to this question, which I posted initially in the Twin Cities Apologetics Facebook group:
The earliest fragment we have of the New Testament is the gospel of John from around 130AD – 40 to 50 years after the date of writing. We also potentially have other fragments that date earlier, but those fragments are still being looked into by historians (they’ve been found within the past few years).
The earliest full copy of the New Testament we have is Codex Sinaiticus from the 4th Century AD. So let’s say around 300 years after the time of original writing.
This response is sufficient to answer the question as written. But that question points to a bigger question yet – Is the New Testament accurate? Put in another way, does the New Testament we have today faithfully represent the original writings?
To reach a conclusion about this big question of accuracy, we can focus in on four smaller questions about the New Testament manuscripts we have today:
1. How many manuscripts do we have?
This question is important in our ability to compare manuscripts . The more manuscripts we have, the more we are able to compare them to see if any information changed as the manuscripts continued to be copied.
2. When were those manuscripts produced?
If we have a ton of manuscripts, but they all come from 1,000 years after the original writing, then we are left with plenty of room for doubt. The text could have easily changed in that 1,000 year period! The quantity of manuscripts itself is not sufficient to establish accuracy; the dates of those manuscripts also need to be considered.
3. How many differences are there between manuscripts, and what is the nature of those differences?
If we find many differences between manuscripts, we have reason to doubt that the copying process was reliable in preserving the original text. But the number of differences is not the only thing to consider – we also need to consider the nature of the differences.
For example, let’s say the letter “b” was missing in a manuscript, and multiple earlier manuscripts do contain that letter. Based on this data, we could conclude that this difference resulted from a copying error that was not part of the original text. But if there are several paragraphs missing in a manuscript, reconstructing the original text becomes a more difficult task.
4. Do early external sources refer to the text in the manuscripts?
An external source can provide additional evidence about the accuracy of the New Testament. For example, let’s say an ancient historian quotes a paragraph from the New Testament. That quote indicates what was written in New Testament manuscripts available when the historian lived, and thus can be added to our collection of manuscript evidence.
These “small questions” can create some extensive discussion. For sake of space, I’ll address the questions in future posts (although I know doing so creates a huge cliffhanger!). After doing so, I’ll revisit the “big question” – Is the New Testament accurate? – and see if any clear answers arise from the data. I don’t expect that this investigation will be exhaustive, but I think I’ll learn something from it. I hope you do as well.
Are there any other “small” questions you think we should consider in addressing the “big” question of the New Testament’s accuracy? Do you know of any resources that would be helpful in investigating either “the big question” or “the small questions?” Feel free to comment below!