The New Testament is an ancient collection of 27 documents produced in the last few decades of the first century of the Common Era (i.e. AD). They represent the only authentic witness to the teaching of Jesus Christ and the application of His teaching to a variety of questions and issues that confronted the early Christians. Originally, each document was composed individually to address a certain issue, and slowly they were being collected together by individuals and church communities. Today, modern Christians have the luxury of purchasing these documents from antiquity in an anthology – a collected and organized body of related literature.
The present piece is a brief survey of some aspects of the New Testament documents which make them possess inherent value and enduring value sufficient enough to demand the attention of any reasonable person who has a concern for their soul and their eternal destiny. Everything that could be said on the subject is obviously not said here, but we commend the following points for a preliminary investigation.
The New Testament is a Written Record
As a written record, the New Testament holds enduring value. Several years ago, Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix made the argument that while God could have used angelic revelations, visions, and dreams, moral “oughtness”, or direct divine communication and intervention, God chose a permanent method to dispense his teaching and will – “the time-tested superiority of a written record of truth.”
The value of a written record, particularly a religiously written record, is seen in Geisler and Nix’s concluding argument:
A written record has one additional advantage as well, namely, it can stimulate memory and conjure up within the individual’s imagination a host of personal implications that are latent within the given symbols or words of that record. Words, then, are not wooden as to prevent a “personal blessing” for the individual reader, particularly in light of the fact that biblical words are the objective vehicle through which the Holy Spirit applies truth personally and subjectively to each reader individually (cf. John 16:13; 1 Pet 1:11).
The New Testament, then, is a written record – a durative witness – to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. A life that existed in eternity, was revealed in the sinless life of a human servant of God, and fully demonstrated to be divine in the death and resurrection of himself, Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-3, 14; Phil 2:5-8; 1 Tim 3:16; Rom 1:1-4). This is a permanent record of the Greatest Story Ever Told.
The New Testament is a Preserved Ancient Document
The modern availability of the printed word is somewhat deceptive. A printer was not some machine that vibrates and rumbles until the document we want comes into existence. A “printer” was far more a human process than the mechanical one that it is today, and for that reason the modern scene of printing is deceptive. Technology, for all its usefulness, also provides with its services a handicap in practice or perspective. When a person desired to publish a work during pre-printing press era, it was accomplished manually – by hand.
Hence, like all ancient documents before the printing press, the only way the New Testament was published for churches and redistributed to the masses was to copy it by hand. The publisher is often described as a scribe, and it is a profession that goes back very early in recorded antiquity. Scribal work has a rich heritage of scholarship and workmanship behind it. The field of transmitting literature is a known trade-skill from the 2nd millennium B.C. – where “men were being trained not merely as scribes, but as expert copyists.”
At times the New Testament documents were copied at times by professional scribes, while other times it is evident that they were transmitted by genuinely concerned, but non-professional Christians. From a theological point of view, we must remember that inspiration belongs to the original documents (Isa 28:13; Jer 36:4, 27-32). The essential preservation of the word of God falls within the domain of God’s providential care (2 Kings 22:3-13). Consequently, inspiration secures the teaching we are to obey, while God preserves His message for posterity so that all may know his will.
The New Testament has survived the attempts of many to extinguish it from the face of the planet. One of the earliest forces against the church and its literature was the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had a very strong negative position on foreign religions, viewing them “as threats to the morality and the very existence of the state and its own official religion.” Furthermore, the Romans were against conspiracies, thinking that they were “bound together by oaths sealed in human blood.” And finally, when enforcement of the Roman religion was in vogue, or some other political situation emerged requiring allegiance, suppression of foreign religions included the opportunity to recant and “the confiscation of foreign religious documents.” These were applied to all foreign religions.
Eventually, Christianity became the object of Roman wrath and suppression as a foreign religion. Christians had to face the life or death situations or the burning their biblical literature or suffer as a martyr. Many kept their faith intact and met their Creator in obedience. Since these early centuries, others have tried to destroy the Bible and remove it from the world’s grasp but have been woefully unsuccessful. And while there may be modern advocates for the demise of Christianity, the New Testament (the Bible for that matter) stands strong.
The sheer existence of this collection of literature speaks volumes of the New Testament’s enduring value.
The New Testament is Abundantly Attested
There is another vantage point to which attention must be given in this discussion. As far as books from antiquity are concerned, the New Testament is the most attested ancient document in history. Recalling that the New Testament is not a product of the English language, modern Greek Testaments are the result of laborious research and study. Essentially, every Greek Testament is an edited text of thousands of ancient witnesses (i.e. copies, translations, and quotations) of the New Testament.
Is it true that the original manuscripts (autographs) of the New Testament no longer exist? Yes. Does that automatically make the reliability of these 27 documents suspect? No. If so, “If one operated on the premise that no document is genuine unless the original is possessed, he would have to throw away the bulk of ancient literature.”
It is important to know that there is a Mount Everest of evidence bearing testimony to the wording of the New Testament documents, more so than for any ancient document – or set of documents – to date. A comparison with other ancient works will help put the matter into perspective. Such ancient works like those of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Julius Caesar are made available based upon a handful of manuscripts (fragmentary or complete) dated close to a millennia (1000 years), or so, after their original composition – if not later.
Meanwhile, copies of the New Testament documents exist within less than half a century of their original composition and publication. The evidence exists in terms of manuscript copies, ancient translations, and allusions or direct quotations of these New Testament documents. Let us consider simply the manuscript evidence.
There are more than 5,000 manuscripts dating from the first few decades of the second century until the time of the printing press. Even within the shadow of their original composition, copies of the New Testament documents exist in part and in essential completeness in such a way that exceeds other ancient classical works.
In an article from Duke University’s Papyri Archive database, Peter van Minnen describes this unique phenomenon of the early New Testament manuscripts:
A careful comparison of the papyrus documents and manuscripts of the second and third centuries [100 to 299 AD] has established beyond doubt that about forty Greek papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament date from this very period. Unfortunately only six of them are extensively preserved.
For example, the earliest fragment of the New Testament is found in Papyrus 52 (P52), an early witness to the copying of the Gospel of John beginning at least in the early second century. It is dated between AD 100-125 by most textual critics and when discovered in Egypt it created quite a stir, for in conjunction with other papyri (P76, P66) it destroyed the academic notion of a second-century composition for the Fourth Gospel.
The earliest most complete manuscripts of the New Testament date to the fourth and fifth centuries AD. They are Vaticanus (4th century AD), Sinaiticus (4th century AD), Alexandrinus (5th century AD), and Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th century AD). These represent just about every literary category of the New Testament: the Gospels, Acts, Letters of Paul, General Letters, and Revelation. Vaticanus, however, does not have Revelation.
However, “even the book of Revelation, the most poorly attested writing in the NT, more than 300 Greek MSS have been found,” observes David Alan Black, Professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The earliest manuscript of Revelation (verso/back of P98) is dated to the second century AD, containing the text of Revelation 1:13-2:1.
That there exist 300 manuscripts alone for the book of Revelation is astounding since we observed earlier that other classical works have a handful of witnesses upon which their translations are based. Specifically, there are no manuscripts of Homer’s works the Iliad and the Odyssey, fragments or essentially complete, until the sixth and thirteenth centuries AD respectively. Homer is said to have lived somewhere around the ninth or eighth century BC, so this is a gap of some fifteen centuries.
Likewise, consider the man Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 102 BC-44 BC). Surely, there would be manuscript witnesses to any literary work of this man whose honors include the titles Pater Patriae (Father of the Fatherland), Pontifex Maximus (Highest Priest), Dictator, and in 43 BC the senate voted that Julius Caesar be regarded as Divus (Divine), posthumously included among the pantheon of Roman deities. And, as a testament to the impact of this man and his name upon history, one source observes, “for two thousand years after Julius Caesar’s assassination, there was at least one head of state bearing his name” (link).
The Gallic War, or Commentaries on the Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico), recounts the complete victory of the Romans over the whole of Gaul (cf. “Gaul being entirely reduced” Gallic Wars 8:1) and bringing an expansion to the Republic of Rome. One could assume, then, that Caesar’s Gallic War, the production of his later years (58 BC-50 BC), would be preserved amply. Instead, very few copies exist; to be exact, “only about nine reasonably good manuscripts” exist, “and they date to some 900 years this side of the originals.” Nothing even remotely close to the half-decade gap between one of the last documents of the New Testament composed and the fragment papyrus P52 (100 AD-125 AD) which bears testimony to John 18:31-33 (recto) and vv. 37-38 (verso).
First, the New Testament is a preserved record of the teaching of Jesus. As such, it is more reliable than religions which depend upon oral traditions and folklore. Moreover, a solid record of revelation provides a stable record free from doctrinal revisions, unlike the on-again, off-again positions of the Latter Day Saints. We may assume then, that since the God provided the books of the New Testament in a written format, that God has laid a high premium upon the value of these books. A follower of Jesus cannot subscribe to the notion that they can have Jesus apart from his word, for Jesus specifically denounces such a concept (John 15:1-11). The New Testament, then, is the indispensable resource for the faithful disciple of Christ – don’t leave home without it (cf. Prov. 7).
Second, in the providential hand of God, the New Testament has withstood the destructive forces of time and those brazen desires of the enemies of God who would attempt to destroy the words of Jesus. Scribes and everyday Christians have been copying the New Testament since the first century AD, and faithful Christians sacrificed their own lives to smuggled their faith into the hands of future generations. This story reflects the biblical tradition to share the Gospel with the world (Matt 28:19-20; 1 Pet 4:6). Paul instructed Timothy to train faithful men in the teaching and preaching of the word (1 Tim 2:2). This is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18), this is the ministry of mercy wherein we believe and speak of the redemption Christ offers (2 Cor 4:1-14). This faith is our responsibility to pass upon others.
Third, there are several hundred copies of the New Testament available from the second and third centuries AD testifying to the wording of these documents. The gap between the date of composition and manuscript evidence of their transmission is extremely narrow for an ancient document, or anthology of ancient documents when compared to the large gaps that exist among several classical works and their manuscript evidence. If these large gaps do not seem to make these classic works any less reliable, how then should we view the New Testament’s reliability when the gaps between composition and available copies are so much smaller? We should view its reliability as far more certain and established.
For these preliminary reasons, we then strongly submit that the New Testament has the enduring value sufficient to demand the attention of spiritually sensitive and discerning. The child of God can ponder over these historical aspects of the New Testament, but in time we hope to offer an article to address some of the theological issues that also contribute to this argument that the New Testament record has enduring value.
- Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, revised and expanded (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1986), 323.
- Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 324.
- W. J. Martin, et al., “Texts and Versions,” The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), 1254; Daniel Arnaud, “Scribes and Literature,” Near Eastern Archaeology 63.4 (2000): 199.
- Robert M. Grant, The Sword and the Cross (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1955), 13.
- Grant, The Sword and the Cross, 15.
- Grant, The Sword and the Cross, 20.
- Wayne Jackson, “Are the New Testament Books Historically Credible?” ChristianCourier.com (Accessed 4 Mar. 2002), par. 1.
- Jackson, “Are the New Testament Books Historically Credible?,” pars. 3-6.
- Peter van Minnen, “Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts,” Duke Papyrus Archive Online (Accessed 12 Dec. 1995), par. 7.
- Philip W. Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, corrected and enlarged ed. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 365.
- Luke T. Johnson and Todd C. Penner, The Writings of the New Testment: An Interpretation, revised ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1999), 526.
- David A. Black, “Textual Criticism of the New Testament” Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, eds. David S. Dockery, et al. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 398.
- Comfort and Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts, 628.
- Jackson, “Are the New Testament Books Historically Credible?,” pars. 3-6.
- Grant, The Sword and the Cross, 34.
- Gaius Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars, trans. W. A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn, MIT’s The Internet Classics Library.
- Jackson, “Are the New Testament Books Historically Credible?,” par. 6.
- In 1843, Joseph Smith wrote, “ God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.  Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.” (Doctrine and Covenants Sect. 132 pars. 29-40). Now the “mainline” Latter Day Saints do not practice polygamy due to doctrinal changes; however, as clearly evident by recent media, original-Joseph-Smith-Mormans are still practicing polygamy undercover.