Recently we heard the news that a new manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has been discovered that may well be dated in the first century! One of my former professors, Dr. Craig A. Evans notes;
If authenticity and early date are confirmed, this fragment of the Gospel of Mark could be very significant and show how well preserved the text of the New Testament really is. We all await its publication.
Based on the evidence we already have, can we trust the text of the New Testament? Are the documents reliable?
The Integrity of the New Testament Text
The Scriptures were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). God’s act of inspiration guarantees that Sacred Scripture faithfully and without error communicates God’s truth to us (DV 11). The Sacred Scriptures are written by dual authorship, both human and divine, with God as the primary author. The human authors do indeed write as true authors. “For the composition of these books God chose and made use of men who employed in their task their natural capabilities and powers, in order that through his action on them and by means of them they should write, as true authors, all that he willed and only what he willed” (DV 11). Yet God as the primary author of Scripture guarantees that the final result is the inspired and inerrant word of God written to contain “only what he willed” (DV 11).
Having affirmed these truths, we move on to a secondary question. God’s inspiration of Scripture applies to the original manuscripts or “autographs.” For example, the letters written by the Apostle Paul in his own hand or that of his scribe would be the original autographs. Although we have many early copies, we do not have any original autographs of the New Testament. If God inspired the original autographs of Sacred Scripture and these have been lost can we trust the copies of these manuscripts?
A Wealth of Evidence
Though we believe through the eyes of faith that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, do we need to fear that this faith is undermined by the hard facts of reason? No, all truth is God’s Truth. In fact, the New Testament is the best-attested writing of antiquity. As of 1990 there were 5,488 manuscripts of the New Testament catalogued. We have three types of NT manuscripts (abbreviated mss.): papyrus mss (a paper made from reeds), uncials (leather mss written in all caps), and miniscule mss (cursive writing developed in Byzantium approx. 9th Century). Finally we have church lectionaries which contain portions of manuscripts.
Type of Manuscript:
|Papyri mss. Catalogued||96|
|Uncial mss. Catalogued||299|
|Minuscule mss. Catalogued||2, 812|
|Lectionaries catalogued||2, 281|
It can easily be seen that the manuscripts of the New Testament are better attested than any other ancient writing of the period. The dating of the manuscripts is also much earlier. If we compare textual material from ancient historical works outside the New Testament we find the following:
Ancient Historical Work
|Caesar’s Gallic War (58-50 BC)||Several extant mss. But only 9-10 are good and the oldest is c. 850 A.D.|
|Livy’s Roman History (59BC- 17 AD)35 books out of 142 survive||< 20 mss. only one fragment of Books iii-iv. 4th century.|
|Tacitus Histories (c. 100 AD)||4.5 mss. (see date below)|
|Tacitus Annals (c. 100 AD)10 of 16 survive||2 mss. (9th century and 11th century)|
|Tacitus Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania (c. 100 AD)||1 codex 10th century|
|History of Thucydides (c. 488-428 AD)||8 mss. earliest c. 900 AD + papyrus fragments 1st century A.D.|
The following chart illustrates some of the early codex (or book manuscripts) and fragments of papyri.
Portion of NT
|Codex Sinaiticus||Mid- fourth century A.D||All|
|Codex Vaticanus||Mid- fourth century A.D||All|
|Charles L. Freer Codex||late fourth or early 5th century||Four Gospels|
|A. Chester Beatty, papyri||3rd century||portions of most of the books of the New Testament|
|Bodmer papyri||200 AD……………………….3rd century ………………….||text of the Gospel according to Johnlarge portions of both Luke and John.|
|Papyrus 52John Rylands University Library of Manchester||prob. oldest surviving fragment of the Greek New Testament = beginning 2nd century||John 18:31-33, 37-38.|
This is obviously only a small sample of the 5448 manuscripts. There are full manuscripts of the entire New Testament surviving from the third and fourth centuries and many fragments of the New Testament from the 2nd century. If we remember that the New Testament writers lived in the mid-to-late first century, this is astoundingly early.
A further question might be the level of agreement between these manuscripts. New Testament textual specialist Bruce Metzger notes, “Though there are thousands of divergencies of wording among the manuscripts of the Bible (more in the New Testament than in the Old), the overwhelming majority of such variant readings involve inconsequential details, such as alternative spellings, order of words, and interchange of synonyms.” These are often equivalent to the mistake of spelling “grate” as “great” in an era when spelling was more fluid and dictionaries were yet to be invented.
Brief Time Lapse
As mentioned above, some papyrus fragments are dated within one generation of the original manuscripts (“autographs”). Not long ago a study by Carsten P. Theide caused a stir by dating a fragment of Matthew’s Gospel ca. 60 AD.  Although Theide has not convinced most scholars of this fragment’s attribution and dating, it is possible that some of the fragments of the New Testament are from the first century AD. Remember that by comparison most classical works are preserved by only one or two manuscripts which are copies made 700-1000 years after the original.
It is worth noting that the works of the NT were quickly translated to other vernacular languages such as Latin (over 8,000 mss), Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian and distributed over a wide geographical area. These manuscripts agree with the early Greek manuscripts mentioned above. In addition, we also have quotes from the NT found in the Early Fathers of the Church: Clement of Rome (AD 95), Justin Martyr (AD 150), Irenaeus (AD 170), and Origen (AD 250).
Can I trust the Bible is true? You bet! The New Testament is the best-attested writing of antiquity. There are more manuscripts of the New Testament and they are earlier that any comparable literature. Recent discoveries on the text of the Koran show a completely different situation. Although the evidence has not yet been fully released (as mentioned above) there is a credible report of a new even earlier manuscript of Mark’s Gospel with a fragment of that Gospel from the first century.
 See the Review of Carsten Peter Thiede, The Earliest Gospel Manuscript? The Qumran Fragment 7Q5 and its Significance for New Testament Studies(London: Paternoster, 1992) http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1196.
© Scott McKellar 2012