Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Is the Bible, historically reliable?

Compared to the Qur’an, a far better picture emerges

Are the NT documents unreliable? If based on manuscript evidence alone, then no other writing of antiquity can even come close to matching the New Testament in terms of authenticity and preservation. For instance, we have in our possession over 25,000 fragmentary or whole copies of the individual NT books with some dating from the second century AD.

An example would be a fragment of the Gospel of John dating between 117-125 AD, approximately 30 years from the original which is believed to have been written 90-95 AD. Further evidence for the reliability of the NT text is furnished by Christian apologist, Norm Geisler:

"Of the four gospels alone there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on. This includes 268 by Justin Martyr (100-165), 1038 by Ireneaus (active in the late second century), 1017 by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 155-ca. 220), 9231 by Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254), 3822 by Tertullian (ca. 160s-ca. 220), 734 by Hippolytus (d. ca. 236) and 325 by Eusebius (ca. 265-ca. 339…) Earlier, Clement of Rome cited Matthew, John, 1 Corinthians in 95 to 97. Ignatius referred to six Pauline Epistles in about 110, and between 110 and 150 Polycarp quoted from all four Gospels, Acts and most of Paul's Epistles. Shepherd of Hermas (115-140) cited Matthew, Mark, Acts, I Corinthians, and other books. Didache (120-150) referred to Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Papias, companion of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, quoted John. This argues powerfully that the Gospels were in existence before the end of the first century, while some eyewitnesses (including John) were still alive." (Norm Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics [Baker Books, Grand Rapids MI; 1999], pp. 529-530)

Add to this list the possible discovery of several NT quotations found in Qumran:

Jose O'Callahan, a Spanish Jesuit palaeographer, made headlines around the world on March 18, 1972, when he identified a manuscript fragment from Qumran… as a piece of the Gospel of Mark. The piece was from Cave 7. Fragments from this cave had previously been dated between 50 BC and 50 AD, hardly within the time frame established for New Testament writings. Using accepted methods of papyrology and palaeography, O'Callahan compared sequences of letters with existing documents and eventually identified nine fragments as belonging to one Gospel, Acts, and a few Epistles. Some of these were dated slightly later than 50, but still extremely early

Mark 4:28


AD 50

Mark 6:48


AD ?

Mark 6:52, 53


AD 50

Mark 12:17


AD 50

Acts 27:38


AD 60+

Rom. 5:11, 12


AD 70+

1 Tim. 3:16; 4:1-3


AD 70+

2 Peter 1:15


AD 70+

James 1:23, 24


AD 70+

Everyone acknowledge that, if valid, O'Callahan's conclusions will revolutionize New Testament theories. If even some of these fragments are from New Testament, the implications for Christian apologetics are enormous. Mark and Acts must have been written within the lifetimes of the apostles and contemporaries of the events. There would be no time for mythological embellishment of the records... They must be accepted as historical... There would hardly be time for a predecessor series of Q manuscripts... And since these manuscripts are not originals but copies, parts of the New Testament would be shown to have been copied and disseminated during the lives of the writers. No first-century date allows time for myths or legends to creep into the stories about Jesus." (Geisler, p. 530)

Even without the manuscript (MS) portions from Qumran, the NT text is assured. Geisler also mentions variant readings that arose due to copying and their effect on the reliability of the text:

"There is widespread misunderstanding among critics about ‘errors’ in the biblical manuscripts. Some have estimated there are about 200,000 of them. First of all, these are not ‘errors’ but variant readings, the vast majority of which are strictly grammatical. Second, these readings are spread throughout the more than 5300 manuscripts, so that a variant spelling of one letter in one verse in 2000 manuscripts is counted as 2000 ‘errors.’ Textual scholars Westcott and Hort estimated that only one in sixty of these variants has significance. This would leave a text 98.33 percent pure. Philip Schaff calculated that, of the 150,000 variants known in his day, only 400 changed the meaning of the passage, only fifty were of real significance, and not even one affected ‘an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of Scripture teaching (Schaff, 177)

Most other ancient books are not so well authenticated. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger estimated that the Mahabharata of Hinduism is copied with only about 90 percent accuracy and Homer's Illiad with about 95 percent. By comparison, he estimated the New Testament is about 99.5 percent.

Islamic scholars recognize the textual scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon as an authority on ancient manuscripts. Yet Kenyon concluded that:
 ‘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 of no other ancient book in the world. [55]. (Geisler, pp. 532-533)

Since Geisler mentions Sir Frederick G. Kenyon, former director and principal librarian of the British Museum, here are some other things he said concerning the veracity of the New Testament,

"The interval, then, between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established." (Sir Frederick Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940], 288 ff.)

Kenyon goes on to rightly conclude,

"… no unbiased scholar would deny that the text that has come down to us is substantially sound." (Kenyon, The Bible, as cited in Joshua McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, p. 49)

And, "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." (Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941]: 23, as cited in McDowell, Evidence, p. 45)

B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, the editors of The New Testament in Original Greek, also commented:

"If comparative trivialities such as changes of order, the insertion or omission of the article with proper names, and the like are set aside, the works in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly mount to more than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament." (B.F. Westcott, and F.J.A. Hort, eds., New Testament in Original Greek, 1881, vol. II, 2.)

More on that here and here


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