Is the New Testament Trustworthy: Ancient Manuscripts
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
Short answer: Yes, the New Testament is the most trustworthy ancient writing in existence.
The New Testament was written by eye-witnesses of the Risen Lord (Ex. Matthew, John, Peter, Paul, etc.) or by interviewing eye-witnesses (Ex. Luke, Mark, etc.). The writers claimed to be eyewitnesses, see Acts 1:3, 1 John 1:1-3, 2 Peter 1:16 and John 20:30-31. The New Testament even appeals to the fact that the readers saw what the apostles preached (see St. Peter do this in Acts 2:22 or St. Paul in Acts 26:24-26).
Manchester University scholar F.F. Bruce says in his book, The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable?, "There are over 5,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament known to exist today" (p. 17). These are either full copies or fragmentary. They were hand-copied on papyrus or parchment before the printing press in 1450 AD.
Now, there were would be many, many more manuscripts had they not been burned by the Romans. The Roman Empire kept a pressed thumb upon the early Christians, making it illegal for the first 300 years to claim to be one. Only when the Roman Emperor Constantine came and announced the Edict of Milan in 313 AD did it become legal to claim to be Christian. The Romans were actively persecuting the Christians, attempting to get rid of it. They stormed the homes of Christians, collecting the Scriptures to burn them.
Recently, an ancient Roman document detailing this Roman persecution has been discovered. Archeology has discovered the document called "the trial of the six martyrs" written in July 180 AD, where the Roman Proconsul Saturninus ordered the destruction of all Scriptures written in Latin. Amazingly, however, a few survived. St. Jerome, the translator of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into Latin in the late 300's, said he drew from multiple Latin translations when writing his Vulgate.
Yet even though we have lost so many manuscripts, we still have an immense body of them. In fact, we have more copies of the New Testament than any other.
The New Testament has over 5,000 manuscripts, which is unheard of for an ancient document - historically speaking. For instance, the John Rylands Papyrus held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England has a fragment of the Gospel of John, dated to around 130 AD. It was found in Alexandria, Egypt, and lists John 18:31-33, 37. In fact, this papyri can now be dated even earlier. According to Philip Comfort and David Barred in their scholarly work, "The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts," they say this fragment (P52) has now been dated to around 100 - 125 AD (p. 365).
This is incredible, for St. John would have written his Gospel around 90 - 100 AD from Ephesus, Greece. How did it get already to Egypt so quickly? Within 10-35 years? This is rather unheard of. In fact, it gets better. The Bodmer Paparus II (P66) has John 1-14 and large chunks of the last 7 chapters. F.F. Bruce says it is dated 150-200 AD, but now it has been dated to 140-160 AD according to Philip Comfort and David Barred.
The Christian writer Tatian wrote a document called the "Diatesseron" or "Harmony of the Four" that dates to the 2nd century. The Diatesseron was where all four Gospels were harmonized into one Gospel and was read throughout Syria for the early centuries of the Church. This codex was attested too numerous times by Syriac writers, and was the standard text before Codex Alexandrinus.
We have the complete New Testament in Codex Alexandrinus (a codex is an early book-type manuscript) from the 5th century in a Coptic monastery today, Egypt. St. Mark, Origen of Alexandria, St. Gregory the Wonder Worker, St. Clement of Alexandria, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria are some of the Christians to have lived in Alexandria, Egypt.
From the 3rd century, we have the A. Chester Beatty Papyri, which are titled P45, P46, and P47. The document contains the four Gospels, but also, "large portions of St Paul’s letters, parts of the Book of Revelation, and an account of Jesus’ crucifixion by John the evangelist" (read more here).
We have the New Testament in Codex Vaticanus dated to around 300-320 AD. Finally, we have Codex Sinaticus, dated to 350 AD. Funny story about that codex, for according to the Josh McDowell ministry, "Tischendorf, while visiting St. Catherine’s, chanced to see some leaves of parchment in a waste basket of papers destined to light the oven of the monastery. Upon examination, they proved to be part of a copy of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. Tischendorf retrieved from the basket no less than 43 leaves, no doubt horrified when a monk casually remarked that two basket loads of similarly discarded leaves had already been burned."
Compare this to the 9 manuscripts which exist of Caesars Gallic Wars, written in around 55AD. The oldest copy of this writing is dated 900 years after Caesars wars! The History of Rome by the historian Livy was written between 59BC and 17AD, we have 20 manuscripts, the oldest of which is the 4th century. The Annals of Tacitus written in the early 100's AD by a Roman historian, we have only two copies, one from the 9th century, and one from the 11th century. This is 700-1,000 years from the original document. The history of Thucydides, who was a Greek historian from around the 5th century, BC. There are 8 manuscripts, the earliest of which is from around 900 AD. This is over 1,300 years from the original. The same is true of Heroditus. Yet, how many historians actually doubt Thucydides or Heroditus?
New Testament scholars Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts agree when they wrote that, "[C]ompared with other works of antiquity, the New Testament has far greater (numerical) and earlier documentation than any other book. Most of the available works of antiquity have only a few manuscripts that attest to their existence, and these are typically much later than their original date of composition, so that it is not uncommon for the earliest manuscript to be dated over nine hundred years after the original composition."
Professor Richard Purtill said in his work, "Thinking about Religion," that, "If the biblical narratives did not contain accounts of miraculous events...biblical history would probably be regarded as much more firmly established than most of the history of, say, classical Greece and Rome."
As we have seen, the New Testament has an incredible pedigree of manuscript evidence. It is, quite simply, the most trustworthy ancient manuscript from the ancient world. So, let's quote this vast amount of evidence to our friends who question the trustworthiness of the Bible. It just might convert them.