Why should I believe the Bible? How can I know if the New Testament is accurate or if it’s been altered down through the ages so that church leaders can manipulate the masses? Is it really authentic? Why should I waste my time reading something that may be corrupted from the original? These are questions that are asked most often by the educated and intellectual folks. Some people use these questions as an escape mechanism to try to avoid having to read an ancient book that is very long with admittedly some dry and uninteresting parts.
But others have an honest curiosity. In fact, most Christians don’t have answers to these questions and it’s good for believers to know where the source of their faith comes from. So here is a thumbnail history of the New Testament so you can be prepared the next time you’re challenged this way.
Among literary scholars there are commonly accepted methods for testing ancient documents. Literature being examined must answer the following:
1) How many manuscripts have been found?
2) How early are the manuscripts?
3) How accurately were they copied?
The largest number of manuscript copies for any major literary work is 643 for Homer’s Iliad, then 193 for Sophocles’ work. Then these numbers dwindle dramatically, varying from 49 for the works of Aristotle, down to seven for Plato’s Tetralogies.
In various churches, seminaries, colleges, and museums around the world, there are over 5,300 manuscripts in the original Greek and, in addition, more than 19,000 ancient New Testament manuscripts in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and other languages. There are more than 24,000 hand-written copies of portions of the New Testament that have survived the ages, or, in other words, 38 times as many manuscripts as the Iliad which is exceptional in its manuscript evidence compared to other ancient works. The comparison is not even close!
There are no autograph originals for these ancient manuscripts in existence today, including the Bible. The time interval between the date of writing and the earliest known manuscripts of all ancient literature other than the Bible is between 300 and 1500 years. But most date a thousand years or more from the time they were first written to the earliest known manuscripts.
The John Rylands papyrus containing a small portion of the gospel of John dates back to within 30-35 years of the time it was actually penned by the apostle himself. Further, major copies dating from A.D. 175-250, the Bodmer and Beatty papyri come within 100-150 years of the originals. There was a nearly continuous chain of copies from the originals to the printing press. If the text were not essentially like the autographs, when could they have become corrupted? We have copies in every century back to the beginning!
Concerning the last test that measures the extent of distortion of the text over the centuries, a study on this subject was conducted and published (1963) by Dr. Bruce Metzger, professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton. He compared the manuscripts of three ancient works: Homer’s Iliad, the Hindu sacred book, the Mahabharata, and the Christian New Testament. Only differences in the manuscripts affecting the reader’s understanding were counted, not variations in spelling or grammar that did not affect the meaning of the text. Dr. Metzger found a distortion rate of almost 5% in the Iliad. And we trust that what we have today is sufficiently close to the original documents, whenever they were written.
The distortion rate data for the New Testament is incredible: two tenths of one percent are distorted, or 99.8% of the known manuscripts agree in the meaning of the text. This is 25 times more accurately copied than the Iliad, which is considered good, and 50 times more accurate than manuscript copies of the Mahabharata! There are several million people in the world today who can read Greek. We don’t have to rely on translations at all. We can read the New Testament in the language in which it was originally written. Furthermore, there are over 36,000 quotations or allusions to the New Testament books from writings in the first four centuries after Christ. This makes it possible to reconstruct almost the entire New Testament text from those writings alone!
Esa and I put the New Testament to the most critical acid test forty years ago. We decided that, without prior knowledge of what it said, we would try everything it told us to do to see if it would “work” for us. If it were true, it would transform us as it says it will. We did and it did! We’ve found that the closer you live your life “by the book,” the more the Word (Christ Himself!) will live through you. Isaiah said, “…the word of our God stands forever.”