Manuscript evidence: the New Testament’s firm reliability

In determining the reliability of ancient writings, whether secular or religious (like the New Testament), scholars have devised standards to judge them. Those standards are the following:

Bibliographic Evidence

–Was the document composed close to the time of the event(s) it describes?

–How many copies of the document are available to make a comparison?

Internal Evidence

–Did the writer(s) have the capability & occasion to tell the story correctly?

–Are there glaring contradictions in the document?

External Evidence

–Does evidence exist outside of the document to back what the document claims?

These standards can be applied neutrally to all types of ancient documents whether Christian or secular, so let’s compare facts surrounding non-Christian writings with New Testament writings of the Bible.

Examining bibliographic evidence

–Plato died in 347 BC. The oldest manuscript of his writings dates back to the 10th century AD. This is 1200 years after his death. There are 7 ancient manuscripts available to compare his works.

–Herodotus died in 425 BC. The oldest manuscript of his writings dates back to the 10th century AD also. This is 1300 years after his death. Only 8 ancient copies of his writings are available for comparison.

–Aristotle died in 322 BC. The oldest copy of his writings goes back to 1100 AD, which is 1400 years after his death. The number of ancient copies of those writings for comparison are 49.

–Julius Caesar died in 44 BC. The oldest manuscript of his writings, which discuss the Gallic Wars, dates back to 900 AD, 1000 years after his death. There are 10 ancient manuscripts available to make a comparison of his writings.

–The New Testament (NT) was established when Jesus Christ died in approximately 30 AD. The oldest undisputed writing of his teachings dates back to 117-138 AD (Gospel of John fragment). Nine disputed fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 50-70 AD covering excerpts from Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and James. The oldest manuscript of  a complete New Testament book dates back to 200 AD and the oldest manuscript of the majority of the New Testament, including the gospels, goes back to 250 AD. These are from 20 to 220 years after Christ’s death. Over 5600 ancient manuscripts (and counting) of the New Testament are available for comparison.

The writings of the NT are in closer proximity to Jesus’ death than secular writings are to historical secular figures. The NT also has a far greater number of manuscripts, which ensures that it is more accurate and reliable than secular historical writings. So why is it that critics of the NT are so critical of it by claiming older manuscripts are needed when at the same time they are so accepting of secular historical writings that are based on far less reliable evidence?

Examining internal evidence

For the NT, rules for establishing the Canon by those who compiled the NT are:

–It must be written by eyewitnesses or near eyewitnesses.

–Doctrines within the writings must agree with the rest of Christian doctrine.

–The writings must be used in the worship services of the early church.

Since all the books of the NT had writers who were capable and had the occasion of getting their stories straight and their writings were in agreement and they were used by early churchmen like Clement of Rome (AD 95), Ignatius (AD 107), and Polycarp (AD 110), it was not only determined that the NT was completed by 100 AD, but also that the current NT books were the ones accepted as scripture and widely used by the early church. This shows that accusations that the NT was tampered with or made up long after Jesus died are completely untrue.

Examining external evidence

There is now an overwhelming body of evidence outside the NT validating the claims made by the NT books. For instance, in 1968 on a construction site in Israel, an ossuary (burial) box was discovered dating back to the time of Christ containing the remains of a crucified Jew. The bones had seven inch nails driven through the ankles with wood stuck to the back of the foot and it was determined by these bones that the nature of crucifixion was exactly as portrayed in the gospels.

Furthermore, writings of 10 non-Christians (some expressing their disdain for Christians) who wrote within 150 years of Christ’s life have confirmed his existence and events recorded in the NT, such as:

  • Christ’s virtuous life.
  • James was Jesus’ brother.
  • Tiberius Caesar reigned during Christ’s life.
  • Christ worked unexplainable miracles.
  • Christ was touted as the Messiah.
  • Pontius Pilate allowed his crucifixion.
  • Jesus was crucified the day before Passover.
  • Darkness & an earthquake happened when he died.
  • The disciples believed & preached that he was resurrected.
  • Christ’s apostles were ready & willing to die for the gospel.
  • Christ’s apostles refused to worship Roman gods & claimed Christ was God.
  • The gospel spread fast, even as far as Rome by the end of the 1st century.

The 10 non-Christian ancient sources confirming those events are:

  1. Flavius Josephus, Jewish historian
  2. Tacitus, Roman historian
  3. Pliny the Younger, Roman politician
  4. Phlegon, freed slave & historian
  5. Thallus, 1st century historian
  6. Suetonius, Roman historian
  7. Lucian, Greek satirist
  8. Celsus, Roman philosopher
  9. Mara Bar-Serapion, Roman citizen
  10. Jewish Talmud


Lutheran Hour Ministries. The Bible on Trial. NRB Broadcast. ©2011.

Norman L. Geisler. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. ©2004. pp. 223, 225, 235-236.

–Harry A. Gaylord–

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