So how do we respond to those who doubt that the Bible we read is the same as that which was originally written—or that it really is an ancient record? The truth is that the Christian Scriptures are the best-preserved documents in the history of literature. This is a bold claim. But given the evidence, it is no overstatement, and it is based on three criteria: the historical distance between the original writing and the earliest copies, the consistency of the documents, and the number of known copies.
We have evidence that the Gospels were written by apostles or in cooperation with them. Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, writes:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.6
These claims are consistent with other early witnesses.7 But there is even more evidence that the Old and New Testaments are accurate and that they were written when and by whom Christians claim. Today we have the Scriptures because centuries ago scribes copied the originals in order to preserve them. They paid meticulous attention to detail when they copied the text, which leads many scholars to believe that the copies can be trusted as accurate reproductions of the originals.
But what about the time that elapsed between the copies? Critics argue that the historical distance between the time the books were first written and our oldest existing manuscripts virtually guarantees that mistakes were introduced into the text.
This argument suffered a crippling blow following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s to mid-1950s. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 950 manuscripts and text fragments. Most of these are copies of Old Testament Scriptures that date from the third century BC to the middle of the first century AD. Until this discovery, the earliest manuscripts for the Old Testament were the Masoretic Texts (MT), which dated from about ad 980. Not only did the Dead Sea Scrolls give us older copies, they also allowed scholars to investigate the consistency between earlier and later copies. What they found was striking.
When comparing the MT copy of Isaiah 53 and copies of the same passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars found remarkable consistency. Out of the 166 Hebrew words in Isaiah 53, only 17 letters differ between the documents! None of these differences have any effect on the meaning of the text. Even though these documents were separated by approximately 1,000 years, their remarkable similarity demonstrates that great care was indeed taken to copy and preserve the biblical text.8
The Dead Sea Scrolls are strong evidence for the accuracy of the biblical text. But this isn’t the only evidence. Comparing the number of biblical manuscripts in existence today to the number of existing manuscripts of other ancient texts also supports the integrity of the Scriptures.
Homer wrote the Iliad in approximately 800 bc, and there are 643 known Greek copies, or portions of copies, still in existence. The earliest of these is a partial copy that dates to approximately 400 bc. The first complete text dates to the 13th century. This means that the time between the actual writing of the Iliad and the oldest partial copy in existence is about 400 years, and the time between the actual writing and the first full copy is 2,100 years.
Four hundred years may sound like a lot of time. But in the preservation of ancient literature, 400 years is brief. And 643 copies is substantial when compared to the number of copies of other ancient works. There are 8 copies of Herodotus’ History, and the time between the original and the earliest copy is 1,350 years. There are 10 copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and the gap is 1,000 years. There are 20 copies of Tacitus’ Annals, 7 copies of Pliny Secundus’ Natural History, and 20 copies of Livy’s History of Rome, with historical distances of 1,000, 750, and 400 years respectively.9 Yet despite the length of time between the original writings and the earliest copies, virtually no one questions the validity, accuracy, or authenticity of these documents.
In light of this information, it is reasonable to assert that if the biblical documents exceed these numbers, we have more than sufficient evidence that the Bible we read today is the same as when it was written.
So how does Scripture fare in comparison to these other ancient works? Currently we have approximately 5,500 full or partial copies of books of the New Testament. One complete copy of the New Testament can be dated to within 225 years of the original writing. The earliest confirmed copies of the New Testament Scriptures date back to ad 114. This means that the historical distance between our earliest copies and the date of the original writing is, at most, 50 years. It is “at most” because Dr. Dan Wallace and a team of researchers from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts believe they have located a text fragment from the gospel of Mark that dates back to the first century.10
When compared to other ancient works, the textual evidence for the Christian Scriptures is remarkable. Research demonstrates that the Bible stands alone as the most thoroughly authenticated document in the history of literature.
6 A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company), 414.
7 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 53-55.
8 Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 196, 261-70, 351-85.
9 Craig L. Bloomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 424-44. See also McDowell, New Evidence, 38.
10 Dan Wallace, “Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?”
The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, last accessed December 26, 2012, http://www.csntm.org/News/Archive/2012/2/10/EarliestManuscriptoftheNewTestamentDiscovered.