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 Both sceptics and christians often quote from old books, which have become out of date.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.