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Can we be Confident in the New Testament? (part 1)

October 10, 2012

I once had a conversation with someone who stated that “to believe that Jesus existed and that the stories about Him in the New Testament are true is like believing that Harry Potter is a real person.”

“There is no evidence that Jesus existed!” this person claimed.

Like many other things in life, when it comes to our views on the New Testament, both Christians and non-Christians alike, often just accept what they’ve been told by friends and family. It seems it’s just easier to go with the flow and not bother actually looking into it ourselves.

If you’ve ever studied history at any great depth you’ve probably heard of ‘Textual Criticism‘.

When it comes to exploring ancient history, we know what we know because our ancestors wrote things down. Any time there was a significant event that took place then, much like today, people wrote about it.

However due to the fact that we are talking hundreds and thousands of years ago, very often we are not dealing with original manuscripts, but copies of these originals.

Put simply the job of a textual critic is to critique ancient manuscripts and see if they can identify whether these copies have been transcribed accurately. Has it been falsified or tampered with? Is it consistent with itself or other things that we know? The goal of this complicated process is to develop a critical edition; a version that is as close to the original manuscript as possible.

This means that two of the most important questions the textual critic asks are:

  1. How many copies of this unobtainable original ancient manuscript do we have?
  2. How close is the date that this copy was written to the date of the original?

For example we know of a historian called ‘Herodotus’ because we have 8 copies of a manuscript that give us details of his life and his works. These copies were written approximately 1,300 years after the original. We also know of another historian called Tacitus, who is often referred to as one of the greatest Roman Historians. We have about 20 copies of manuscripts detailing his life and his works that were written approximately 1,000 years after the original.

Whilst this time gap seems large, it’s worth nothing that there would have been earlier copies it’s just that these happen to be the ones that we have in our possession, however, clearly the more copies we have and the closer the time gap the less doubt there is when it comes to developing that critical edition.

When it comes to looking at the writings of the New Testament this is what leading textual critic FJA Hort says:

`In the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the New Testament stands absolutely and unapproachably alone amongst ancient prose writings

The reason Hort is so confident about the reliability of the New Testament is because we have available somewhere in the region of 24-25 thousand copies of original writings, the earliest of which are dated as being just 30 years after the original.

This is what Sir Frederic Kenyon, another expert in the field says:

the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

RT France says the following:

The student of the history of Jesus is, from the point of view of textual criticism, on vastly safer ground than the student of the life of Julius Caesar or indeed of any other figure of ancient history.

When it comes to ancient history one of the things that textual criticism does for us is highlight moments that were significant. In 100 years time, when I am dead and gone I wonder how many people will write about me? Not very many I’d imagine – why? Well because my life isn’t hugely significant – not in the grand scheme of things anyway. Jesus life was considered so significant that it merited thousands and thousands and thousands of copies of manuscripts that detailed his life.

What this means is not that we can now be confident that Jesus actually turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana but we can be confident that these events actually took place.

For example I was watching Dynamo on the Jonathan Ross Show the other weekend and I was mesmerised. Dynamo is a phenomenal magician – seriously the best I’ve seen. I saw this trick he performed on the show and am still confused how it happened. Am I confident that it was actually magic? No – I don’t think so! But I am confident that the event took place – this is the confidence we can have with the New Testament.

For the unbeliever there is still a journey to take from trusting the events happened to trusting in their authenticity.

Now I wish to be clear, what I am not saying is that the process by which the New Testament has passed through the generations to 2012 has been perfect – because it hasn’t.

If we are being totally honest, in terms of Textual Criticism, there still remains a tiny amount of doubt with the textual reliability of the New Testament, but it’s so little it’s negligible. Westcott and Hort state that the parts of the NT “still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part” – which would be less than a third of a page.

There are also some questions around some textual alterations that have taken place, (for a more detailed exposition please follow this link) but there is nothing that gives us grounds to question the texts reliability, and any changes that have been made have more than adequate grounds for a fair explanation.

This blog focuses on the weight of evidence in support of the reliability for the New Testament via the science of Textual Criticism. For a discussion on the support that exists outside of the New Testament then check out the next blog, ‘Can we be Confident in the New Testament? (part 2)


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