Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Have the Gospels Survived?

Have the Gospels Survived?By Nathan Busenitz @

Today’s post is Part 10 of our ten-part series on why we can trust the reliability of the New Testament Gospels. Earlier parts of the series can be found here: Parts 1-6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9.

Tenth, we believe the New Testament Gospels are reliable because they have been faithfully preserved throughout church history.

Up to this point, we have considered various reasons why the New Testament Gospels can be rightly considered to be historically reliable documents. But all of this is predicated on the fact that those Gospels have been adequately preserved throughout history, such that the copies we have today accurately reflect the originals. If the Gospels had been irrevocably corrupted at some point in church history, we would not be able to trust the copies we now possess.

In point of fact, the New Testament documents (including the Gospels) have been preserved remarkably well. This, of course, is not true of all ancient documents. Caesar’s Gallic Wars can boast only ten extant manuscripts, the oldest of which is dated 1,000 years after the original. Only eight surviving manuscripts have been found of Herodotus’ History, the earliest of which is 1,300 years newer than the original. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is similarly attested to by only eight extant manuscripts, again dating from about 1300 years after the work was first penned. And these are just a few examples. [1]

In contrast to secular texts, the New Testament documents (including the Gospels) are very well attested, and from only a short period of time after the originals were penned.

Approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts, containing all or part of the New Testament, exist. There are 8,000 manuscript copies of the Vulgate (a Latin translation of the Bible done by Jerome from 382–405) and more than 350 copies of Syriac (Christian Aramaic) versions of the New Testament (these originated from 150–250; most of the copies are from the 400s). Besides this, virtually the entire New Testament could be reproduced from citations contained in the works of the early church fathers. There are some thirty-two thousand citations in the writings of the Fathers prior to the Council of Nicea (325).[2]

Among the ancient manuscripts are the Chester Beatty Papyri (a group of early Christian manuscripts written on papyrus) most of which are dated in the 200s. Three of these codices (or books) of papyri contain portions of the New Testament. The first (known as “p45”) originally consisted of about 220 leaves and contained all four Gospels and Acts. The second (“p46”) had 104 leaves and included ten of Paul’s epistles. And the third (“p47”) is thought to have had 32 leaves, and contained the Book of Revelation. Today only a portion of those codices remain (around 126 leaves altogether), yet it is enough to serve as a valuable witness to the reliability of our modern Bibles.

Another important papyrus is “p52.” It is one of the oldest copies of any portion of the New Testament yet found, and contains a few verses from the Gospel of John (dated to between 100-150).[3] Its significance lies in the fact that it “proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a provincial town along the Nile, far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus in Asia Minor).”[4] The finding of this fragment shattered liberal theories about a late second-century date for the composition of John’s gospel.

The Bodmer Papyri also warrant mentioning. One of them, “p66” contains a large portion of the Gospel of John (of which John 1:1–6:11 and 6:35b–14:15 are still in tact) and dates from around 200. Another Bodmer papyrus “p77” includes Luke and John (of the original 144 pages, 102 have survived) and dates to between 175 and 225. It is the earliest known copy of the Gospel of Luke. In 1994, one other early papyrus was discovered by a German scholar named Carsten Peter Thiede. Though only fragments remained, it contained the Gospel of Matthew and may date to as early as A.D. 70.

That any manuscripts survived from the few centuries of church history is remarkable, since it was a time of such intense persecution for Christians. From the fourth century on, however, the number of surviving manuscripts becomes much more plentiful. The earliest and most important of these include Codex Sinaiticus (350, which contains almost all of the New Testament), and Codex Vaticanus (325–50), which contains virtually the entire Bible).

Along with these manuscripts and other ancient translations, the records left by the church fathers also confirm that the Gospels have been faithfully preserved. In fact, there are over 19,000 quotations of the New Testament Gospels in the extant writings of the early church fathers.[5] Their testimony bears witness to the fact that the Jesus they worshipped is the same Jesus we worship today.

Of course, there are sometimes discrepancies among the manuscripts that have survived. This is to be expected, given the thousands of copies that were handwritten throughout history. Such discrepancies, then, are due to scribal errors that were made (at various points in church history) as the manuscripts were being manually reproduced.

But Christians need not worry too much about them. For starters, the vast majority of them are very minor (such as a word added here, or a word missing there). Most have been readily explained and corrected, through the science of textual criticism. And none of them pose a serious threat to any major Christian doctrine. The fact that there are so many manuscripts available to examine, some of which are very early, has enabled “textual scholars to accurately reconstruct the original text with more than 99 percent accuracy. [One] noted Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, said the real concerns of textual criticism is on ‘a thousandth part of the entire text’ (making the New Testament 99.9 percent pure).”[6]

We can have confidence, then, in knowing that the Gospels we read today are faithful representations of the original Gospels, though we are separated by 2,000 years and by translation from Greek to English. Thus, we can trust the historical reliability not only of the original Gospel accounts—but more significantly (to us), of our own English copies. In the words of Frederic Kenyon:

The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.[7]

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[1] Cf. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Col, 1963), 180. Bruce notes, “There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament” (p. 178). See also the chart by Josh McDowell in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 38.

[2] J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 135–36.

[3] Cf. Carsten Peter Thiede, The Jesus Papyrus (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996).

[4] Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 39. Metzger’s work was the primary source consulted for information on these papyri.

[5] Josh McDowell, Evidence, 43.

[6] Ravi Zacharias and Norman L. Geisler, Who Made God? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 127.

[7] Frederic G. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1958), 23.

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