By Dix Winston
To defend the Bible, you must answer two questions. Is the Bible good history, and secondly, is it true history? Let me explain and illustrate. If someone told you his great-great-grandfather said he was Napoleon Bonaparte, it would be good history if the man actually said he was Napoleon Bonaparte. That is, it would be an accurate report of the events that occurred; the man said he was Napoleon. But it would not be true history if his great, great grandfather was the Duke of Wellington or anyone else besides Napoleon, because only Napoleon was Napoleon. Claiming to be someone else does not mean the claim is true; the person has lied, but the record of that lie is an example of good history.
This article will look at the first issue—is the Bible good history? Does it accurately report what happened and what was said? A subsequent article will examine the second question.
Many people today do not accept the NT to be an accurate reflection of what took place almost 2,000 years ago. They think it is full of myths, half-truths, and spiritual legends. They think that it has been translated and retranslated and even mistranslated numerous times. They think there are books missing and that what we have is incomplete and inaccurate. In other words, many people do not think the NT is good history.
But there are four lines of evidence to substantiate that the NT is good history. These deal with the surviving or extant manuscripts.
We do not have the autographs, which are the original documents. In fact, we do not have autographs from any work from antiquity. But as we shall see, this actually works in our favor in assuring the NT is good history. The manuscript evidence for the NT is far superior to any other work from antiquity. This is based upon four lines of evidence. First, we have more copious manuscripts. Second, we have closer manuscripts. Third, we have more corroborated manuscripts. And finally, we have more consistent manuscripts.
MORE COPIOUS MANUSCRIPTS
When it comes to ancient manuscripts, more is better. Habermas says, “The strongest case is made when many manuscripts are available, as close in time to the original autographs as possible. Wide geographical distribution of the copies and their textual families are likewise crucial. Of course, having complete texts is essential.”1
Say you had only two manuscripts. One begins with “The;” the other one begins with “A.” Which one reflects the autograph? You cannot be sure. It could be either one. But if you had hundreds or even thousands of manuscripts from different “families” or regions, this would help you to determine what was in the original. If all but one or two manuscripts begin with “The,” and the two that begin with “A” were from a text family that did not have the word “The” in their vocabulary but used the letter “A” as the other manuscripts would use “The,” you could probably conclude the original began with “The.”
But in order to make this type of evaluation, you need copious amounts of manuscripts. And we have copious NT manuscripts. In fact, we have almost 5,800 handwritten NT manuscripts! Geisler comments, “Counting major early translations in Syriac, Arabic, Latin and other languages, there are 9000 copies of the New Testament. This makes a total of over 14,000 copies of the New Testament.”2
This is unparalleled in works of antiquity. There are only 643 manuscripts of Homer, 200 of Demosthenes, 20 of Tacitus, 10 of Julius Caesar, 8 of Herodotus, and 7 of Plato and Pliny.3
The next area in which manuscripts must be compared is the time between the autograph and extant manuscripts. In this case, the older the copy, the closer it is to the original.4 Obviously, if there are large gaps of time in between the original and the copy, transmission errors could have crept into the text.
Again, the NT manuscripts are superior to any other work of antiquity. Geisler writes, “The New Testament . . . survives in complete books from a little over 100 years after the New Testament was completed. Fragments are available from only decades later.”5 This is certainly not the case with other ancient works. Habermas says, “Concerning the date between the original writing and the earliest copies, ancient classical works generally exhibit gaps of at least seven hundred years.”6 For example, the earliest manuscripts we have of Homer are 500 years later; Pliny, 750 years; Julius
Caesar and Tacitus, 1000 years; Herodotus and Demosthenes, 1,400 years.7
John A. T. Robinson points out the significance of this: “The wealth of manuscripts and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best text of any ancient writing in the world.”8 In fact, John Wenham goes so far as to credit the NT as being “99.99 percent accurate and the .01 percent does not affect any significant doctrinal area.”9
MORE CORROBORATED MANUSCRIPTS
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a nine-year persecution of Christians began in AD 303. During this time many Christians were martyred; churches were torn down, and manuscripts burned. Clearly this was an attempt to destroy the Christian movement and Biblical manuscripts. Geisler and Turek point out the significance of this:
But even if Diocletian had succeeded in wiping every biblical manuscript off the face of the earth, he could not have destroyed our ability to reconstruct the New Testament. Why? Because the early church fathers—men of the second and third century such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and others—quoted the New Testament so much (36,289 times, to be exact) that all but eleven verses of the New Testament can be reconstructed just from their quotations. In other words, you could go down to your local public library, check out the works of the early church fathers, and read nearly the entire New Testament just from their quotations of it! So we not only have thousands of manuscripts but thousands of quotations from those manuscripts. This makes restoration of the original text virtually certain.10
So, in reality we do not even need the manuscripts to reconstruct the Bible. In effect, all but eleven verses of the NT were “backed-up” in the writings of the early church fathers!
MORE CONSISTENT MANUSCRIPTS
Based upon the closer, copious, and corroborated manuscripts of the NT, scholars can from these manuscripts reconstruct with certainty what was in the original. This process is called textual criticism. The scholars will take many manuscripts and compare them with each other in an attempt to decipher what was in the original.
Let me illustrate, using Rom 1:17. It says, “The just shall live by faith.” Suppose you find four hypothetical manuscripts (ms=manuscript), each one spelling the last word differently. These manuscripts might resemble the following:
Ms One: The just by faith shall live.
Ms Two: The just by pfath shall live.
Ms Three: The just by fath shall live.
Ms Four: The just by pfaith shall live.
Now even though there are three different errors, or misspelled words, in three of the hypothetical manuscripts, there is no question what was in the autograph. Over 70% of the textual variants in the NT are like that, that is, simple variations in spelling that do not cast any doubt on the original wording.11
The evidence for the NT as good history is overwhelming. Fredrick Kenyon, who has compared the Bible to other ancient manuscripts, puts it this way:
It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain: Especially is this the case with the New Testament. The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said for no other book.12
Truly, the NT is good history. It is an accurate reflection of what was written down almost 2,000 years ago. But, as we mentioned at the beginning, you could have an accurately recorded lie. So, the question we must address in part 2 is: Is the NT true history, or is it a lie?
Dix is the senior pastor of Crosspoint Community Church in Centennial, Colorado. This past September, he and Cynthia had their first grandson, Gunnar Titus. Dix is unashamedly Dispensational and Free Grace!
1 Gary R. Habermas, “Why I Believe The New Testament Is Historically Reliable,” in Why I Am A Christian, ed. by Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 148.
2 Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 532.
3 See Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway Books), 226.
4 Editor’s note. Of course, late-dated careful copies of early manuscripts can exist.
5 Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia, 532.
6 Habermas, “Why I Believe The New Testament Is Historically Reliable,” 148.
7 Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 226.
8 John A. T. Robinson, Can We Trust The New Testament? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1977), 36.
9 John W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), 180.
10 Geisler and Turek, Enough Faith, 228.
11 Dan Wallace, cited at https://biblequestions.info/2020/07/11/is-a-textual-variant-both-meaningful-and-viable/.
12 Fredric Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, 4th edition, ed. by A. W. Adams (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1958), 23.