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Revised dates for ancient documents

November 28th, 2012

New testament papyrus

A common theme in the discussion of the reliability of the New Testament documents is the number of copies we have and the dates of these copies, compared to other ancient writings. And of course, the details change as new discoveries are made.

Here is an update.

Why this is important

There were no printing presses in the first century, and all documents had to be copied by hand, with occasional errors and sometimes deliberate changes. The originals and the copies in the first few centuries were written on papyrus, a material which deteriorates with age. Only later (fourth century and later) was the more durable parchment (vellum) introduced.

Thus we have no originals of the New Testament documents, only very fragmented copies on papyrus from the first three centuries, and the most complete copies come from the fourth century and later.

This therefore raises the question of whether the documentation we have is sufficient to reconstruct the New Testament reliably.

Comparison with other ancient writings

The text of the New Testament may therefore seem to be unreliable, and many sceptics make this claim. But assessment needs to be made in the context of other ancient documents, whose record of history is generally accepted. And in this comparison, the New Testament comes out very well.

As noted in Are the gospels historical? and The reliability of the New Testament text, there are many more surviving New Testament documents, with the earliest much closer to the original (and to the events), than is the case for any other ancient writing.

If the New Testament is unreliable for these reasons, then so is pretty much all of ancient history.

Updating the information

Comparisons are often made between the New Testament and writers such as Herodotus, Caesar, Tacitus or Thucydides. Both sceptics and christians often quote from old books, which have become out of date.

Thus a recent summary of the latest dates, in the Baker Book House Church Connection blog. I won’t repeat all the details here, but the latest figures include in summary:

  • Increased numbers of surviving documents for Homer, Plato and Pliny the Elder.
  • More recent documents for Pliny the Elder and Thucydides.
  • An increase in the number of surviving New Testament documents.

These figures increase the textual support for these ancient texts, but the New Testament is still based on many, many more surviving documents.

I have updated the information in Are the gospels historical? and The reliability of the New Testament text, and this Baker Book House post is worth bookmarking for reference.

Photo: Part of papyrus P1, a portion of Matthew’s gospel dated 250 CE (Wikipedia)

5 Comments

  1. All we have as far as the New Testament docs are concerned are copies of copies of copies etc etc. So what are all these copies actually supporting? Certainly not any original (eyewitness Aramaic) documents.
    Much if the dating is supposition, largely based on the destuction of the Temple by Titus.
    Other biblical dating is so often haywire and downright wrong.
    The census, Herod’s supposed massacre of the innocents etc.
    The geography and archeology also, in the main, either non existant or erroneous.
    As an historical reference the bible is pretty much useless; Josephus is the ‘go to’ reference.

    The dates of the texts are continually under scrutiny with Christian (especially) scholars desperately trying to find some link to an eyewitness account, which is about as sensible as trying to find where Loompaland is.

    There could be a million NT documents and the answers Christians so desperately seek will not be found.
    Fact cannot be made out of fiction.

  2. Hello UnkleE.

    You write, “there are many more surviving New Testament documents…” etc. I have three questions for you:

    1) Can you define ‘New Testament document” for the purpose of this article. Is this the number of hand written copies until the invention of the printing press? Is this the number of Greek copies? Please explain.

    2) If this refers to the number of handwritten copies, as I suspect it does, is there any way to make a histogram of the number of documents as a function of the century in which it was written? I would be interested to see where the vast majority of these 5000 + documents are dated. Also, what languages are these 5000+ documents written in? Based on this information, how many documents out of the 5000+ are actually useful in textual criticism?

    3) When I measure a quantity in the lab, I MUST report my measured value with the appropriate number of significant digits and uncertainty bars. This gives the most likely value, along with a range of possible values. I know that a measurement without uncertainty bars is literally meaningless. We must also report a methodology by which that uncertainty was established. With that in mind, can you answer why Clay Jones dates most of the earliest ancient documents within a single significant digit of accuracy (implying approx +/- 100 year uncertainty), but the NT Manuscripts with two significant digits of accuracy (implying approx +/- 10 year uncertainty)? (note – I am ignoring the dating of the earliest Plato document which amazingly has 3 significant digits – which is impossible for me to believe unless the manuscript is actually dated by the scribe). Reporting data in this way makes the data appear more accurate than it may actually be, and reads in a way that is more in Clay Jones’ favor. The “or less” tacked on to the end of the date of the earliest NT manuscript is arbitrary. It could with equal justification say “or more”, but is reported in this way to, again, make the data say things that Clay Jones wishes it to say. Can you explain why dates for ancient manuscripts, or the actual authorship of NT books for that matter, are rarely if ever reported with a range of possible dates, uncertainty bars, or terminus dates?

    Thanks.

  3. Tagging on the end of question 1), (forgive me, it is late here, and I just thought of this after I posted the above comment) can we also discount, or at least diminish the importance of scraps, fragments, and otherwise incomplete documents from those useful for textual criticism? I am certain the document that Clay Jones reports as being from “AD130 or less” is the famous scrap from the Gospel of John that is so small as to be worthless for textual criticism. How many documents then, out of the 5000+, are actually useful for textual criticism? OK off to bed. Goodnight.

  4. Apparently it is based on something by Josh McDowell, so proceed with caution indeed.

    I am certain the document that Clay Jones reports as being from “AD130 or less” is the famous scrap from the Gospel of John that is so small as to be worthless for textual criticism.

    That seem likely, though while the potential value for textual criticism is limited to less than three verses, calling it “as to be worthless” is a tad hyperbolic. It is actually an important witness for the word order of palin eis to praitorion in verse 33.

    Anyway, you raise several very interesting questions, I’ll try to look some of them up.

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