Unlike the Qur’an, when we consider the New Testament manuscripts (MSS) we are astounded by the sheer numbers of extent copies which are in existence. Muslims contend, however, that since we do not have the original documents, the reliability of the copies we do have is thus in doubt. Yet is this assumption correct?
(1) New Testament Manuscript Copies:
Because the Bible is a book, it was initially made up of manuscripts. Consequently a primary means for ascertaining its credibility today are the number of copies from those manuscripts which are currently in one’s possession. The more copies we have the better we can compare between them and thus know if the document we now read corresponds with the original. It is much like a witness to an event. If we have only one witness to the event, there is the possibility that the witness’s agenda or even an exaggeration of the event has crept in and we would never know the full truth. But if we have many witnesses, the probability that they all got it wrong becomes minute.
Because of time and wear many of the historical documents from the ancient world have few manuscripts to which we can refer. This is specially true when we consider the secular historians and philosophers. For instance, we only have eight copies of Herodotus’s historical works, whose originals were written in 480-425 BC. Likewise, only 5 copies of Aristotle’s writings have found their way to the 20th century, while only 10 copies of the writings of Caesar, along with another 20 copies of the historian Tacitus, and 7 copies from the historian Pliny, who all originally wrote in the first century, are available today 1. These are indeed very few.
When we consider the New Testament, however, we find a completely different scenario. We have today in our possession 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, another 10,000 Latin Vulgates, and 9,300 other early versions (MSS), giving us more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today! 2. Though we do not have any originals, with such a wealth of documentation at our disposal with which to compare, we can delineate quite closely what those originals contained.
What’s more, a substantial number were written well before the compilation of the Qur’an. In fact, according to research done by Kurt and Barbara Aland, a total of 230 manuscript portions are currently in existence which pre-date 600 AD! These can be broken down into 192 Greek New Testament manuscripts, 5 Greek lectionaries containing scripture, and 33 translations of the Greek New Testament 3.
Muslims assert that we have similar problems concerning the large number of years which separate the manuscripts from the events which they speak about. Yet, unlike the Qur’an which was compiled much more recently, we do not find with the Bible such an enormous gap of time between that which the Bible speaks about and when it was written down. In fact, outside of the book of Revelation and the three letters of John considered to have been written later, when we look at the rest of the New Testament books, there is no longer any solid basis for dating them later than 80 AD, or 50 years after the death of Jesus Christ 4. Most of the New Testament was likely written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and perhaps before the fire of Rome (64 AD), and the subsequent persecution of Christians, since none of these events, which would have had an enormous impact on the nascent Christian community are mentioned in any of the New Testament writings. Had the documents been compiled in the second century as Muslims claim, then certainly they would have mentioned these very important events.
This same logic can be taken a step further. Take for instance the martyrdoms of James in 62 AD, Paul in 64 AD, and Peter in 65 AD. All were leaders in the nascent church. Thus their deaths were momentous events for the early Christian community. Yet we find none of the deaths referred to in any of the 27 canonized books of the New Testament (and significantly not in Acts, the most comprehensive historical record we have of the early church). The only explanation can be that they were all written prior to these events, and thus likely before 62 AD, or a mere 30 years after the death of Jesus, of whose life they primarily refer.
(2) Available Manuscripts:
A further criticism concerns whether the copies we possess are credible. Since we do not possess the originals, people ask, how can we be sure they are identical to them? The initial answer is that we will never be completely certain, for there is no means at our disposal to reproduce the originals. This has always been a problem with all known ancient documents. Yet this same question is rarely asked of other historical manuscripts which we refer to constantly. If they are held to be credible, let’s then see how the New Testament compares with them. Let’s compare below the time gaps for the New Testament documents with other credible secular documents.
There were several historians of the ancient world whose works are quite popular. Thucydides, who wrote History of the Peloponnesian War, lived from 460 BC to 400 BC. Virtually everything we know about the war comes from his history. Yet, the earliest copy of any manuscripts of Thucydides’ work dates around 900 AD, a full 1,300 years later! The Roman historian Suetonius lived between AD 70 to 140 AD. Yet the earliest copy of his book The Twelve Caesars is dated around AD 950, a full 800 years later. The chart below reveals the time gaps of these and other works from the ancient world and compares them to the earliest New Testament manuscripts 5.
|Author||Date Written||Earliest Copy||Time Span||Copies (extent)|
|Herodotus (History)||480 – 425 BC||900 AD||1,300 years||8|
|Thucydides (History)||460 – 400 BC||900 AD||1,300 years||?|
|Aristotle (Philosopher)||384 – 322 BC||1,100 AD||1,400 years||5|
|Caesar (History)||100 – 44 BC||900 AD||1,000 years||10|
|Pliny (History)||61 – 113 AD||850 AD||750 years||7|
|Suetonius (Roman History)||70 – 140 AD||950 AD||800 years||?|
|Tacitus (Greek History)||100 AD||1,100 AD||1,000 years||20|
|Biblical Manuscripts: (note: these are individual manuscripts)|
|Magdalene Ms (Matthew 26)||1st century||50-60 AD||co-existant (?)|
|John Rylands (John)||90 AD||130 AD||40 years|
|Bodmer Papyrus II (John)||90 AD||150-200 AD||60-110 years|
|Chester Beatty Papyri (N.T.)||1st century||200 AD||150 years|
|Diatessaron by Tatian (Gospels)||1st century||200 AD||150 years|
|Codex Vaticanus (Bible)||1st century||325-350 AD||275-300 years|
|Codex Sinaiticus (Bible)||1st century||350 AD||300 years|
|Codex Alexandrinus (Bible)||1st century||400 AD||350 years|
(Total New Testament manuscripts = 5,300 Greek MSS, 10,000 Latin Vulgates, 9,300 others = 24,000 copies)
(Total MSS compiled prior to 600 AD = 230)
What one notices almost immediately from the table is that the New Testament manuscript copies which we possess today were compiled very early, a number of them hundreds of years before the earliest copy of a secular manuscript. This not only shows the importance the early Christians gave to preserving their scriptures, but the enormous wealth we have today for early Biblical documentation.
What is even more significant however, are the differences in time spans between the original manuscripts and the copies of both the biblical and secular manuscripts. It is well known in historical circles that the closer a document can be found to the event it describes the more credible it is. The time span for the biblical manuscript copies listed above are all within 350 years of the originals, some as early as 130-250 years and one even purporting to coexist with the original (i.e. the Magdalene Manuscript fragments of Matthew 26), while the time span for the secular manuscript copies are much greater, between 750-1,400 years! This indeed gives enormous authority to the biblical manuscript copies, as no other ancient piece of literature can make such close time comparisons.
Because of its importance to our discussion here a special note needs to be given to the Magdalene Manuscript mentioned above. Until two years ago, the oldest assumed manuscript which we possessed was the St. John papyrus (P52), housed in the John Rylands museum in Manchester, and dated at 120 AD 6. Thus, it was thought that the earliest New Testament manuscript could not be corroborated by eyewitnesses to the events. That assumption has now changed, for three even older manuscripts, one each from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have now been dated earlier than the Johannine account. It is two of these three findings which I believe will completely change the entire focus of the critical debate on the authenticity of the Bible. Let me explain.
The Lukan papyrus, situated in a library in Paris has been dated to the late 1st century or early 2nd century, so it predates the John papyrus by 20-30 years 7. But of more importance are the manuscript findings of Mark and Matthew! New research which has now been uncovered by Dr. Carsten Thiede, and is published in his newly released book on the subject, the Jesus Papyrus mentions a fragment from the book of Mark found among the Qumran scrolls (fragment 7Q5) showing that it was written sometime before 68 AD It is important to remember that Christ died in 33 AD, so this manuscript could have been written, at the latest, within 35 years of His death; possibly earlier, and thus during the time that the eyewitnesses to that event were still alive!
The most significant find, however, is a manuscript fragment from the book of Matthew (chapt.26) called the Magdalene Manuscript which has been analysed by Dr. Carsten Thiede, and also written up in his book The Jesus Papyrus. Using a sophisticated analysis of the handwriting of the fragment by employing a special state-of-the-art microscope, he differentiated between 20 separate micrometer layers of the papyrus, measuring the height and depth of the ink as well as the angle of the stylus used by the scribe. After this analysis Thiede was able to compare it with other papyri from that period; notably manuscripts found at Qumran (dated to 58 AD), another at Herculaneum (dated prior to 79 AD), a further one from the fortress of Masada (dated to between 73/74 AD), and finally a papyrus from the Egyptian town of Oxyrynchus. The Magdalene Manuscript fragments matches all four, and in fact is almost a twin to the papyrus found in Oxyrynchus, which bears the date of 65/66 AD Thiede concludes that these papyrus fragments of St. Matthew’s Gospel were written no later than this date and probably earlier. That suggests that we either have a portion of the original gospel of Matthew, or an immediate copy which was written while Matthew and the other disciples and eyewitnesses to the events were still alive. This would be the oldest manuscript portion of our Bible in existence today, one which co-exists with the original writers!
What is of even more importance is what it says. The Matthew 26 fragment uses in its text nomina sacra (holy names) such as the diminutive “IS” for Jesus and “KE” for Kurie or Lord 8. This is highly significant for our discussion today, because it suggests that the godhead of Jesus was recognised centuries before it was accepted as official church doctrine at the council of Nicea in 325 AD There is still ongoing discussion concerning the exact dating of this manuscript. However, if the dates prove to be correct then this document alone completely eradicates the criticism levelled against the gospel accounts (such as the “Jesus Seminar”) that the early disciples knew nothing about Christ’s divinity, and that this concept was a later redaction imposed by the Christian community in the second century (AD).
We have other manuscript evidence for the New Testament as well:
(3) Versions or Translations:
Besides the 24,000 manuscripts we have more than 15,000 existing copies of the various versions written in the Latin and Syriac (Christian Aramaic), some of which were written as early as 150 A.D., such as the Syriac Peshitta (150-250 A.D.) 9.
Because Christianity was a missionary faith from its very inception (Matthew 28:19-20), the scriptures were immediately translated into the known languages of that period. For that reason other written translations appeared soon after, such as Coptic translations (early 3rd and 4th centuries), Armenian
(400 A.D.), Gothic (4th century), Georgian (5th century), Ethiopic (6th century), and Nubian (6th century) 10. The fact that we have so many translations of the New Testament points to its authenticity, as it would have been almost impossible, had the disciples or later followers wanted to corrupt or forge its contents, for them to have amassed all of the translations from the outlying areas and changed each one so that there would have been the uniformity which we find witnessed in these translations today.
The practice of reading passages from the New Testament books at worship services began from the 6th century, so that today we have 2,135 lectionaries
which have been catalogued from this period 11. If there had been a forgery, they too would have all had to have been changed.
(5) Early Church Father’s Letters:
But possibly the greatest attestation for the authority of our New Testament are the masses of quotations taken from its pages by the early church fathers.
Dean Burgon in his research found in all 86,489 quotes from the early church fathers 12. In fact, there are 32,000 quotations from the New Testament found in writings from before the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. 13. J. Harold Greenlee points out that the quotations of the scripture in the works of the early church writers are so extensive that the New Testament could virtually be reconstructed from them without the use of New Testament manuscripts.
Sir David Dalrymple sought to do this, and from the second and third century writings of the church fathers he found the entire New Testament quoted
except for eleven verses 14! Thus, we could throw the New Testament manuscripts away and still reconstruct it with
the simple help of these letters. Some examples of these are 15:
- Clement (30- 95 A.D.) quotes from various sections of the New Testament.
- Ignatius (70-110 A.D.) knew the apostles and quoted directly from 15 of the 27 books.
- Polycarp (70-156 A.D.) was a disciple of John and quoted from the New Testament.
Thus the manuscript evidence at our disposal today gives us over 24,000 manuscripts with which to corroborate our current New Testament. The earliest
of these manuscripts have now been dated earlier than 60-70 A.D., so within the lifetime of the original writers, and with an outside possibility that they are the originals themselves. On top of that we have 15,000 early translations of the New Testament, and over 2,000 lectionaries. And finally we have scriptural quotations in the letters of the early Church fathers with which we could almost reproduce the New Testament if we so wished. This indeed is substantial manuscript evidence for the New Testament.
So what comparisons are there between the manuscript evidence for the Qur’an and the Bible? We know from the historical record that by the end of the
seventh century the Arabs had expanded right across North Africa and up into Spain, and east as far as India. The Qur’an (according to later Islamic tradition) was the centrepiece of their faith and practice at that time. Certainly within that enormous sphere of influence there should therefore be some Qur’anic manuscripts which still exist till this day. Yet, there is nothing from that period at all. The only manuscripts which Islam provides turn out to have been compiled in the ninth century, while the earliest corroborated manuscript is dated 790 A.D., written not 1400 years ago as Muslims claim but a mere 1,200 years ago.
While Christianity can claim more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, 10,000 Latin Vulgates and at least 9,300 other early versions,
adding up to over 24,000 corroborated New Testament manuscripts still in existence 16, most of which were written between 25-400
years after the death of Christ (or between the 1st and 5th centuries) 17, Islam cannot provide a single manuscript until well into the eighth century 18. If the Christians could retain so many thousands of ancient manuscripts, all of which were written long before the Qur’an, at a time when paper had not yet been introduced, forcing the dependency on papyrus which disintegrated with age, then one wonders why the Muslims are not able to forward a single manuscript from this much later period, during which the Qur’an was supposedly
revealed? This indeed gives the Bible a much stronger claim for reliability than the Qur’an.
Furthermore, while the earliest New Testament manuscripts as well as the earliest letters from the church fathers correspond with the New Testament which we have in our hands, providing us with some certainty that they have not been unduly added to or tampered with, the Qur’anic material which we have in
our possession abounds with stories whose origins we can now trace to second century Jewish and Christian apocryphal literature. We know in some cases
who wrote them, when exactly they were written and at times even why they were written; and that none of them were from a divine source, as they
were written by the most human of Rabbis and storytellers over the intervening centuries after the Bible had been canonized.
We now turn our attention to the documentary evidence for both the Qur’an and the Bible.
- McDowell 1972:42 ↩
- taken from McDowell’s Evidence That demands a Verdict, vol.1, 1972 pgs.40-48; and Time, January 23, 1995, pg.57 ↩
- Aland 1987:82-83 ↩
- Robinson 1976:79 ↩
- taken from McDowell 1972:42, & Bruce 1943:16-17 ↩
- Time April 26, 1996, pg.8 ↩
- Time April 26, 1996, pg.8 ↩
- The Times, Saturday, December 24, 1994 ↩
- McDowell 1972:49; 1990:47 ↩
- McDowell 1972:48-50 ↩
- McDowell 1972:52 ↩
- McDowell 1990:47-48; 1991:52 ↩
- Mcdowell Evidence, 1972:52 ↩
- McDowell 1972:50-51; 1990:48 ↩
- from McDowell’s Evidence…, 1972 pg. 51 ↩
- McDowell 1990:43-55 ↩
- McDowell 1972:39-49 ↩
- Lings & Safadi 1976:17; Schimmel 1984:4-6 ↩