What does it mean to say that a written work from ancient times is “well attested”? If you browse Christian apologetic web sites, you’ll read that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is superior to anything else from antiquity. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) site, for example, tells us that our “New Testament documents are better preserved and more numerous than any other ancient writings.”
This argument, of course, is not new. F. F. Bruce often argued that we hold the NT to an unreasonably higher standard than any other ancient document or set of documents. He lamented that people tend to dwell on the mistakes and discrepancies in the manuscripts. Back in 1963 he wrote:
In view of the inevitable accumulation of such errors over the many centuries, it may be thought that the original texts of the New Testament documents have been corrupted beyond restoration. Some writers, indeed, insist on the likelihood of this to such a degree that one sometimes suspects they would be glad if it were true. But they are mistaken. There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament. (F. F. Bruce, 1963, p. 178, emphasis mine)
As you can see, apologetic victimhood is nothing new.
Ever so much greater
In a more recent work he said that the NT gets unfair treatment. He complained:
The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. (F. F. Bruce, 1981, p. 10, emphasis mine)
In the foreword to the same book, N. T. Wright gushed:
Yes, we can trust the New Testament. For a start, the documents themselves — the manuscripts from which our knowledge of the New Testament comes — are in far, far better shape than the manuscripts of any other work from the ancient world, by a very long way. Think of the great classical authors — Homer, Plato, Virgil, Horace, or whoever — and you’ll find that our knowledge of them rests on a small number of very late manuscripts, often as much as a thousand years after the author’s day. Examine the New Testament, and you’ll find that our knowledge of it rests on a very large number of manuscripts, several hundred in fact, which go back as far, in some cases, as the early second century, less than a hundred years after the books were first written. There is better evidence for the New Testament than for any other ancient book. (N.T. Wright, 1981, p. ix-x, emphasis mine)
And while Bart Ehrman is generally more skeptical and (blush!) an admitted agnostic, apologist authors love to quote him when it suits their purposes. For example:
We currently know of nearly 5,400 Greek copies of all or part of the New Testament, ranging from tiny scraps of a verse or two that could fit in the palm of your hand to massive tomes containing all twenty-seven books bound together. These copies range in date, roughly, from the second century down to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. As a result, the New Testament is preserved in far more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity. There are, for example, fewer than 700 copies of Homer’s Iliad, fewer than 350 copies of the plays of Euripides, and only one copy of the first six books of the Annals of Tacitus. (Ehrman, 2000, p. 443)
Such emphatic words, such impressive numbers! They astonish and comfort the lay reading public, which is exactly their intention. Breathless believers will cherry-pick and memorize these factoids, and then repeat them back to you. For the hardcore apologist they represent “solid proof” that the NT is reliable, and (obviously) the Word of God.
Why so many?
Not many will stop and wonder why so many New Testament manuscripts have survived. If they did, they might begin to question whether all that excitement is warranted.
♦ But it’s a dry heat
First of all, we’re fortunate that Christianity gained an early foothold in Egypt. That dry climate preserved papyrus much longer than in Palestine, Asia Minor, or Europe.
♦ Hey! Make me a copy, too!
Since believers used the works of the NT for liturgical purposes, each church naturally wanted its own copy of whatever was available. That probably included partial collections — Paul’s letters, the four gospels, perhaps even primitive lectionaries. And they didn’t use their scriptures solely for worship. According to some scholars, the codex caught on among Christians because the format let them search more quickly and “bookmark” their proof texts. They used them.
♦ Wear and tear.
Of course, high demand wasn’t the only reason for the large number of manuscripts. Under heavy use, papyri wore out and had to be replaced. Unlike a copy of a play by Euripides, a community’s manuscript of the gospel of Matthew would suffer from constant handling. As they deteriorated, they had to be recopied.
In short, we have so many extant full and fragmentary manuscripts of NT texts because (1) a huge number existed originally and (2) many of them were in Egypt, where they didn’t rot away. If Ehrman’s estimate of 5,400 is correct, then many thousands more must have existed that were lost or destroyed, or that disintegrated into dust.
Is more always better?
Scholars continually tell us that no work from ancient times has as many copies or bits of copies as the NT. We can’t deny that. But there’s more to “good” attestation than sheer numbers.
♦ Good news and bad news
While fate gives with one hand, she takes with the other. Continual recopying and constant spread inevitably led to changes and mistakes. We could liken it to mutations in living organisms. While NT manuscripts were spreading like fruit flies and mutating with each generation, the writings of Livy remained safe and sound in the libraries of major cities.
♦ Not all scribes are created equal
If you take some time to learn about the manuscripts of NT works, you’ll see that many of them were written by scribes that were marginally capable at best. The scribes who wrote the Codex Sinaiticus had steady, well-trained hands. One of them was particularly good, possibly a “senior copyist.” But the amateur scribes responsible for some earlier manuscripts wrote with heavy, clumsy strokes, as if they were drawing each letter.
The fact that many early scribes weren’t fully up to the task shouldn’t surprise us. Functional literacy was rare in the first few centuries of the Common Era, and scribal literacy was rarer still. In some quarters, the mere ability to write your own name put you in a rarefied category. In smaller towns and in poor areas, true scribal literacy did not exist.
♦ Good attestation should include provenance
The Codex Sinaiticus, by the way, is a world treasure, and having it available on line so that ordinary people like us can read it is privilege we never would have imagined just 30 years ago. But despite its fantastic value and importance to the history of the New Testament, you should know that we have no idea where it was written. Most scholars date it to sometime in the fourth century. Exactly when? We don’t know. Who wrote it? We’re not sure. And how the parchment ended up in a monastery in the Sinai remains a mystery.
We don’t know much about earlier papyrus manuscripts, either. For example, we don’t know where the Chester Beatty Papyri came from. By that, I mean we don’t know who found them, where, or when. If we’re lucky, we might have some idea where an ancient manuscript was purchased (or liberated), but often we have no clue. Even then we frequently know nothing else about the provenance of early New Testament manuscripts.
The elephant in the scriptorium
Unfortunately, dogma played a huge role in what survived and what didn’t.
♦ Heretical works rarely survive
As I’ve said, the books we do have survived because they were needed, and so they were copied. But they had one more thing going for them: Orthodox Christians weren’t actively seeking to destroy them. We don’t have a copy of Marcion’s gospel, and we probably never will, because Marcion’s beliefs conflicted with the faction of Christianity that prevailed. While early fragments of Mark were turning to dust, Marcion’s gospel was being converted into ash.
Despite Bruce’s petulant comment about skeptical writers being “glad” that the NT is beyond restoration, I would love it if we found a copy of Marcion’s collection of Paul’s letters. Hell, I’d be ecstatic if a fragment of Marcion’s version of Galatians magically appeared. Imagine how much we would learn about the transmission of the Pauline canon.
♦ The custody problem
Speaking of Marcion, we know that he as well as other Gnostics revered Paul’s works and maintained copies for decades. When the Orthodox Christians took over Paul’s letters from the Gnostics they naturally felt the urge to “correct” anything the heretics might have changed. In other words, they had license to alter the text to conform to what they believed were the correct teachings of Paul. As they told the story, of course, they were simply adding back parts that Marcion had chopped out.
It becomes clear to anyone studying the early years of Christianity that the farther back we look, the more diversity in belief we find. In addition, we discover that orthodoxy, as it emerged in Constantine’s reign, does not represent a particular strain of Christianity that arose from the beginning, but rather represents the fusion of several different ideas. Some of those concepts, such as the doctrine of the trinity and the nature of Christ, are nonsensical and self-contradictory, but Christians came to embrace them as transcendent mysteries.
♦ The time gap
NT Scholars enjoy telling us that very little time transpired between the dates the original authors wrote their documents and the point at which we first find manuscripts of those writings. As we saw above, N. T. Wright claims we have manuscripts from the early second century, which would mean our gap of silence lasted less than a hundred years. But we have to remember that Wright is a Christian apologist, given to hyperbole. In “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates,” Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse examine the earliest NT manuscripts the way any other work would be evaluated, and they concluded:
Our palaeographical investigation of Biblical papyri has shown that the early dates proposed by some NT scholars are not based on a careful study of the relevant scripts within the more general context of the development of Greek literary hands, but rather on the wish to find early examples of the Gospels among the papyri. There are no first century New Testament papyri and only very few can be attributed to the second century (????52, ????90, ????104, probably all the second half of the century) or somewhere between the late second and early third centuries (????30, ????64+67+4, 0171, 0212). Biblical scholars should realise that some of the dates proposed by some of their colleagues are not acceptable to Greek palaeographers and papyrologists. (Orsini & Clarysse, 2012, p. 466, emphasis mine)
We should note as well that, as the authors point out, “The date of the earliest New Testament papyri is nearly always based on palaeographical criteria.” Unfortunately, as any expert in manuscripts will tell you, palaeography is the least reliable method for dating a manuscript. Remember that when you see date ranges of 25 years. That’s wishful thinking.
Other criteria for “good” attestation
Homeric scholars date the Venetus A manuscript back to the 900s CE, many centuries after the Iliad first appeared on the page. The gap is huge. And yet this manuscript (now referred to as Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 [=822]) is considered the best version of the Iliad we have. NT scholars rightly point out that we have precious few examples of Homeric texts from antiquity. In fact, we would more properly call Venetus A a medieval text.
Still, in my humble, nonprofessional view, Venetus A easily beats Codex Vaticanus or Codex Sinaiticus, because it contains not only the text of the Iliad, but a number of annotations and commentaries by important Greco-Roman scholars from the late Roman Republic and early Principate. Simply put, Venetus A has value because of its content, provenance, and pedigree. It is a library-quality manuscript copied from library-quality manuscripts. Modern scholars believe that the text accurately reflects material from the Royal Library at Alexandria.
NT scholars emphasize the criteria of antiquity and proliferation, because, frankly, that’s all they’ve got. In the wider world of ancient history, scholars value other criteria as well: provenance, quality of workmanship, corroboration with other texts, and scholia. In addition, Venetus A contains evidence of known variations in the text:
On the Venetus A the D Scholia appear as interlinear notes written in a semiuncial script, and are largely “glosses,” short definitions, of words in the poems. One of the most interesting aspects of the D Scholia is their lemmata, the Homeric passages that a scholion may quote before commenting. In many cases, these lemmata do not match the Homeric text that appears on the manuscript. Thus, these scholia may offer insights into alternative versions of the text, other examples of traditional material that fell out of the common text of the Iliad by the ninth century, but are preserved here and there in brief quotations by the scholiasts, the writers of these marginal notes. (Blackwell and Dué, 2009, p. 8, emphasis mine)
These variations may go back to alternate oral renditions of the poem, thus providing the sort of insight no New Testament manuscript can or likely ever will give us.
In addition, we have no reason to suspect that the scribes who created Venetus A changed the text for religious purposes. Rather than a liturgical text, this manuscript of the Iliad is a scholarly text written by scholars for scholars.
When NT scholars tell us over and over that the New Testament is better attested than any other work from antiquity, they’re mainly talking about numbers of papyri and parchments. They gloss over several serious problems with those many manuscripts, including:
- Corruption, owing to religious zeal (deliberate additions and deletions)
- Variation, due to high turnover
- Mistakes, thanks to mediocre scribes
- Ignorance, caused by a lack of provenance (who, where, when, why?)
Exuberant confidence in the text of the New Testament depends on an array of little white lies of omission.
On the other hand, real ancient historians value manuscripts using other criteria. Essentially, they value quality over quantity. They certainly would wish for more, but so would NT scholars. So would we all. But if we were honest, we’d admit we don’t really need another scrap like ????52. As far as NT manuscripts go, we’d give anything to have a document approaching the quality of Venetus A.
Blackwell, Christopher and Dué, Casey
Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad, edited by Casey Dué, Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009
Bruce, F. F.
The Books and the Parchments, Fleming H. Revell, 1965
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, InterVarsity Press, 2003
Ehrman, Bart D.
The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press, 2004
Wright, N. T.
“Foreword,” The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable, F. F. Bruce, InterVarsity Press, 2003