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How reliable can we reconstruct the New Testament?

How reliable can we reconstruct the New Testament?

When one wants to consider the reliability of any ancient document, three aspects need to be looked at. 1.) How short the time span is between the actual event and the date it was reported. How shorter this period, the more accurate the report would be since contemporaries could evaluate and correct inaccurate particulars. 2.) How short the time span is between the initial autograph, and the oldest copy available. Variations, errors or deliberate alterations are unavoidable. Therefore the shorter this time span the greater the possibility that the copy could be a true copy of the original. 3.) The third aspect is the number of copies we have of the specific document. The more copies we have to work with, the greater is the possibility to reconstruct the original correctly. Here we have to take into account an important discrepancy. All hand written manuscripts and copies are corrupted by mistakes and deviations, whether deliberately or unintentional. As a result, with only a few copies, few deviations will be found. With only one copy, there will of course be no deviation but equally there is no certainty that it would be a true copy of the original. With many copies the deviations will increase, but also the possibility to compile a correct and true rendering of the original.

According to these criteria, let us compare the New Testament with some other ancient documents.
1. The time lapse between event and autograph. According to calculations Jesus was crucified between 30 and 33 A.D. The epistles of the disciples and Paul were written around 65 A.D. This means that these epistles were written about thirty years after the crucifixion; the gospels about ten years later. The whole New Testament was finalized around 95 A.D. about sixty to sixty five years after the crucifixion. Consequently there were many eye witnesses present who knew Jesus personally, and could correct any misinformation or something reported out of context. It is also important to note that none of the facts mentioned in the New Testament are contradicted by any of the historians of the day. To the contrary many archaeological discoveries as well as documents of that time confirm the facts.

2. The time lapse between the autograph and the oldest copy we have. Again the New Testament is head and shoulders above other ancient documents. A papyrus fragment in the John Rylands collection, named papyrus52 containing a few verses of the gospel of John, is dated around 125 A.D. Taking in account that this gospel was written ±95 A.D. it means that this copy dates from less than thirty years after the autograph. This is unheard of in ancient documents. Most of the other books of the New Testament are represented by copies of about 150 years after the original. The time span for Mark is about 200 years. The time span for the epistles of James, Peter and John is about 250 years with Timothy and 3 John following at 300 years. The nearest to this is Homer’s Iliad at about 500 years. With most antique documents the time span is between 1000 to 1500 years.

3. The number of copies to our avail.
The third criterion that experts use to discern the original autograph of any ancient writing, is to compare the different copies available. If there exists only one, like a Coptic translation of the so called gospel of Philip, one has to come to the conclusion that it represents whatever is left of the original. How accurate that is, one cannot say at all. If only two or three are available, some comparison can be made. But the more copies one has to compare, the mare certain one can be in establishing the original. Let us then compare the New Testament with some other well known ancient writings. The different categories that have a major influence on this process are self explanatory.

Consider the following documents:
Document…..Time written…..Oldest copy…..Time lapse….No copies
Homer, Iliad..±900 B.C. ………±400 B.C. …….±500 years … 643
Plato ……….±427-347 B.C. …±900 A.D. ……..±1200 yr …….. 7
Aristotle ..….±348-322 B.C. ..±1100 A.D. ……±1400 yr …….. 49
Caesar ……±100-44 B.C. …..±900 A.D. ……..±1000 yr …….. 10
Tacitus …….±100 A.D. ……….±1100 A.D. ……±1000 yr …….. 20
N.T. …….….±50-95 A.D. …….±125-350 A.D. ..±30-300 yr …… 5600
Translations .±200-300 A.D. ..±250-500 A.D. ..±50-200 yr ….. 19000
Learned scholars estimate that Homer’s Iliad can be reconstructed to about 95% certainty. Then what about the New Testament!

Apart from the 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the text critic has another 19000 manuscripts of ancient translations like Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic and Latin, of the New Testament to his avail. This corpus of almost 25000 manuscripts is supplemented by hundreds of quotations by the early Church Fathers. This makes it possible for Bible scholars to reconstruct each book of the New Testament to about 99.5% certainty.
When we take these facts in consideration, there should be no uncertainty at all! But if we honestly want to reconstruct the original autographs of the different books of the New Testament other things come into play. The New Testament is no little Illiad-story, or dead Caesarean history. It is the bundle of documents on which our faith is built and grounded! It is the document in which our eternal destiny is formulated! It is not the creation of some ancient historian or gifted writer!


With reverence we then should bow before God and pray: “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”(Ps.139:24)

God bless,

Herman Grobler.

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