The Mustard Seed
April 2008


Prove it!
(Part 5)
[series archive]

Plato -- the Greek philosopher. 
Homer -- the Greek poet. 
Julius Caesar -- the Roman emperor. 
Tacitus -- the Roman historian.

Every student of ancient European history recognizes these names.   When I studied Classical Greek and Latin in college, my fellow students and I had to translate published portions of literature which these people had written.  Handwritten manuscript copies of their work, copied and recopied generation after generation, still exist today, preserved in museum vaults. 

In all my studies of these ancient authors, I never saw any critique which suggested that any of those documents are corrupted and unreliable.  Scholars assume that the works of Plato, Homer, Caesar, and Tacitus which have been handed down to us accurately represent what their original authors wrote.  Yet many of these same scholars claim that manuscript copies which form our New Testament of the Bible are corrupted and unreliable.  In the face of such criticism, let us make a comparison, applying the same tests to the New Testament as we do other ancient documents.

Since we do not possess the original letters by Paul, or Plato's original manuscript, we must apply two basic tests to judge the accuracy of existing copies of an ancient document.  Those two tests are: 

How many ancient copies of the document still exist?  If the number of existing copies is few, that is bad.  If the number of existing copies is many, that is good.  If we have many copies of a document, it is a simple task to compare those copies to determine what the original manuscript said.
How long is the time span between the original composition of the document and the earliest existing copies?  A short time span is good.  A long gap in time is bad.  During a long span of time there is the chance that with each generation the text will become further corrupted.

How do the existing manuscripts of our ancient authors compare when we measure them with those two basic tests?

Plato wrote his Philosophy about 400 BC.  Only seven ancient copies exist today.  The time span between Plato and the earliest existing copy is about 1,300 years.

Homer wrote the Iliad about 800 BC.  There are 642 ancient copies still in existence.  The time span between Homer and the earliest existing copy is about 400 years.

Julius Caesar wrote his account of the Gallic Wars between 100 BC and 44 BC.  Ten ancient copies still exist.  The earliest of those copies was written 1,000 years after Caesar wrote original manuscript.

Tacitus wrote his Annals around AD 100. Twenty ancient copies exist, the earliest of which dates about 1,000 years after Tacitus.

In this list thus far, Homer gets the high score.  He has the highest number of ancient manuscripts in the shortest time span.  The others offer very few copies, with time spans of 1,000 years or more.  Yet, historians have regarded the documents as accurate.

How do the Bible's New Testament manuscripts compare?  There exists today 5,366 ancient copies of portions of the New Testament.  The time span between the original composition of the New Testament documents and existing copies is about 50 years for copy fragments, 100 years for whole books of the New Testament, 150 years for nearly complete NTs, and 225 years for complete New Testaments. The New Testament offers an objective standard for reliability which far exceeds every other ancient document of western civilization.

New Testament Manuscript Evidence
compared with other classical ancient literature

Time gap between original composition and earliest existing manuscripts
New Testament

 50 years
 1,000 years 
Julius Caesar
 1,000 years 
 1,300 years 
    400 years 

Number of existing early manuscript copies









Source:  The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell,
(c) 1999, Thomas Nelson Publishers; p.38

Also see http://christdeaf.org/bible/evidence.htm

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