Who Needs Kinko’s ?
The original writings of the apostles were revered. Churches studied them, shared them, carefully preserved them and stored them away like buried treasure.
But, alas, Roman confiscations, the passage of 2,000 years, and the second law of thermodynamics have taken their toll. So, today, what do we have of those original writings? Nothing. The original manuscripts are all gone (though each week Bible scholars, no doubt, tune in to Antiques Roadshow hoping one might emerge).
Yet the New Testament is not alone in this fate; no other comparable document from ancient history exists today either. Historians aren’t troubled by the lack of original manuscripts if they have reliable copies to examine. But are there ancient copies of the New Testament available, and if so, are they faithful to the originals?
As the number of churches multiplied, hundreds of copies were carefully made under the supervision of church leaders. Every letter was meticulously penned in ink on parchment or papyrus. And so, today, scholars can study the surviving copies (and the copies of copies, and the copies of copies of copies—you get it), to determine authenticity and arrive at a very close approximation of the original documents.
In fact, scholars studying ancient literature have devised the science of textual criticism to examine documents such as The Odyssey, comparing them with other ancient documents to determine their accuracy. More recently, military historian Charles Sanders augmented textual criticism by devising a three-part test that looks at not only the faithfulness of the copy but also the credibility of the authors. His tests are these:
- The bibliographical test
- The internal evidence test
- The external evidence test7
Let’s see what happens when we apply these tests to the early New Testament manuscripts.
This test compares a document with other ancient history from the same period. It asks:
- How many copies of the original document are in existence?
- How large of a time gap is there between the original writings and the earliest copies?
- How well does a document compare with other ancient history?
Imagine if we had only two or three copies of the original New Testament manuscripts. The sampling would be so small that we couldn’t possibly verify accuracy. On the other hand, if we had hundreds or even thousands, we could easily weed out the errors of poorly transmitted documents.
So, how well does the New Testament compare with other ancient writings with regard to both the number of copies and the time gap from the originals? More than 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament exist today in the original Greek language. Many of these manuscripts are merely fragments, while others are virtually complete books. When counting translations into other languages, the number is a staggering 24,000 – dating from the second to the fifteenth century.
Compare that with the second-best-documented ancient historical manuscript, Homer’s Iliad, with 643 copies.8 And remember that most ancient historical works have far fewer existing manuscripts than that one does (usually fewer than 10). New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger remarked, “In contrast with these figures [of other ancient manuscripts], the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.”9