The Logic of Faith
The Bible is probably the most copied of all books ever
written. Since it was completed it has been the most widely
owned book in the world; the number of copies produced is
many times that of its next competitor, Euclid's Elements.
As a result of the popularity of the Bible there are a great
many manuscripts available which are copies of its text.
This allows us to make two checks on the Bible:
- Text: We can compare the text of the
various manuscripts against one another and against the
modern text of the Bible and discover how reliable the
modern text is.
- Date: As the Bible must have been
written before its oldest copy, the date of the various
manuscripts can help us to date the writing of the Bible.
Both of these tests are of value today because they help
to show that we can have confidence in our modern copies of
the Bible. Because other articles in this series cover other
books this one will concentrate mainly on the manuscripts of
the four gospels.
How the Bible was Written
The English versions of the Bible that we commonly use
are not strictly Bibles at all. The original Bible was
written in Hebrew with some Aramaic (Old Testament) and
Greek (New Testament). What we have is a translation of the
text of the Bible into English so that we can read it.
Almost all modern translations are accurate enough for one
to be able to learn the gospel from them, although some are
more accurate than others.
The Bible was written by hand and early copies were made
on parchment (paper made
from animal skin), vellum
(parchment from an unborn animal) or
papyrus (a paper-like material made from a
species of reed). In order to allow Bibles to be used
throughout the world, copies were made of these manuscripts
by hand, and further copies were made of these copies. By
studying the material used and the style of handwriting it
is possible to date manuscripts fairly precisely; where the
manuscript concerned is large it is sometimes possible to
supplement the dating made in this way with a radio-Carbon
The Oldest New Testament Manuscripts
Until recently the oldest New Testament Manuscript was a
fragment of John's Gospel found in the Fayyum in Egypt and
preserved in the Rylands Library in Manchester. However, new
discoveries have produced even earlier manuscript fragments.
The Magdalen Fragment
This is three fragments of the Gospel of Matthew which
was found in Egypt in the last century. It was recently
examined by a paleographer and dated at 65 AD ± 15 years.
This means that it is probably from before 70 AD. There are
several other fragments known to be similar to this one, so
it is possible that other, even earlier, manuscripts will be
found in the world's museums or libraries. It is the oldest
fragment in the world to mention the name of Jesus.
This is one of a set of fragments of New Testament
documents found in Cave Seven of the Dead Sea Scrolls caves.
It only contains a few letters, but a search of known
ancient documents shows that it can only credibly be
identified as coming from Mark 652-53.
As the Dead Sea finds were buried during 68 AD as the Romans
occupied the area in the Jewish War, it is clear that the
fragments are from before this time. Paleographical analysis
(comparison of the style of writing with other documents)
suggests that the document was written no later than 50 AD.
Various fragments of other New Testament books were found in
the same cave; the set had been kept together in the same
jar, fragments of which were also found. Together there were
nine fragments representing six different books of the New
Testament (Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, James).
These manuscript finds confirm something that was worked
out by Bible scholars in the 1970s: the whole of the
Bible must have been completed before 70 AD. This
means that the events it describes were written in the
lifetimes of the people who took part in them. Some of the
people who saw Jesus preach were among those who read the
first gospels. This means that there is little scope for
errors of fact or outright invention to have worked their
way into the gospels.
Manuscripts are known by a serial number. Those
discovered in the Dead Sea caves have numbers which contain
the letter Q for
Qumran, a settlement in
the area where many of them were copied. 7Q5 was
discovered in cave 7 of the Dead Sea caves. Papyrus
fragments have numbers prefixed with
p for Papyrus.
Thus the Rylands fragment (copied in about 125 AD) is called
p52. The earliest substantial fragments are:
- p45 - A substantial document purchased by an
American business man called Chester
Beatty. It was copied between 150 and 250 AD and
contains: Matthew chs 20,21,25,26; Mark chs 4-9,11,12;
Luke chs 6,7,9-14; John chs 10,11 and Acts chs 4-17.
- p46 - Another of the Chester Beatty Papyri,
this time copied between 90 and 175 AD. It contains:
Romans chs 5,6,8-16; the whole of 1 and 2 Corinthians,
Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians,
1 Thessalonians chs 1,2,5 and the whole of Hebrews.
- p66 - This papyrus was bought by
Martin Bodmer, another
philanthropic businessman. It was copied between 150 and
200 AD and contains the Gospel of John, almost complete.
- p72 - This is another of the Bodmer papyri.
This one was written in the 200's AD and contains 1 and
2 Peter and Jude.
- p75 - A third Bodmer papyrus, this time written
between 175 and 200 AD and containing part of the gospel
of Luke (chs 3-18 & 22-24) and John chs 1-5.
The Number of Manuscripts
One thing that is very impressive about the New Testament
is the tremendous number of manuscripts available against
which the modern text can be compared. Copies were made
throughout the Roman Empire and later on throughout
Christendom. Manuscripts were rarely destroyed deliberately,
and a good random sample has survived. One can summarise the
available manuscripts as follows:
- Greek Bibles. These are copies of part or all
of the New Testament in the Greek in which it was written.
Some of these manuscripts contain only one Gospel; others
contain not only the whole New Testament but also the Old
Testament translated into Greek. There are about six
thousand of these ancient Greek Bibles.
- Ancient Versions. The Bible was translated into
other languages than Greek very soon after it was written.
There were early translations into Latin, Syriac, Coptic,
Armenian and Ethiopic so that people who did not speak
Greek could read the Scriptures for themselves. Copies of
these Bibles were made independently of the Greek New
- Lectionaries. A lectionary is a copy of the
Bible made to be read out in church services. As the
readings were not in the order in which the Bible was
written, a Lectionary will contain the Bible with its
chapters re-arranged into a non-standard order.
- Citations. The Bible was quoted in other
writings by members of the early church. Especially
fruitful in the search for citations are commentaries on
the Bible, but other works also had quotations written in
them. These citations from a body of literature which can
be compared to the Bible. Geisler and Nix have produced an
analysis of these citations and conclude that there are
over 32,000 citations from before the Council of Nicea
All together about 24,000 manuscripts of the New
Testament are available for examination by scholars,
excluding citations. The majority of these have few
variations; nearly all the variations are found within 1,000
manuscripts. The manuscript evidence is enough to establish
a very good text; there are only a very small number of
places where there is any serious dispute.
Comparison with other Books
It is worth comparing the manuscript witnesses to the
text of the Bible with the manuscript witnesses to the text
of other ancient books. The following table contains details
of some ancient works.
In spite of the superior numbers of Biblical manuscripts
and the closeness of these manuscripts to the original
writing of the Bible, no-one seriously questions the text of
the other works.
Old Testament Manuscripts
The oldest manuscript of any part of the Old Testament is
a silver scroll excavated in a tomb on the flank of the
valley of Hinnom on the Western side of Jerusalem. This
scroll contains the blessing of
Numbers 624-26; it was buried shortly
before 600 BC, and before the Jews were carried captive to
Babylon. We thus have a manuscript of a part of the Bible
which was buried at least a century before the critics of
the Bible say that it was written.
The Old Testament was mainly written in Hebrew, although
a small part of it was written in Aramaic. The modern Hebrew
text is called the Massoretic Text
because the rules for copying it were devised by a school of
Jewish scholars called the Massoretes. These scholars
generated exceedingly precise methods of checking the text
of a copy to see whether it was accurate, looking for the
middle letter in a book, counting the number of occurrences
of each letter in a column and so on. As a result one would
expect their work to be very accurate.
However, the oldest manuscripts available to make a check
were not, until the end of the nineteenth century, very old.
The oldest available until this time would be the
Aleppo codex, which was copied
in about 900 AD; there were several other tenth century
codices extant. However, in 1897 a wealth of old manuscripts
from the previous century was found in the Geniza of the old
Cairo synagogue. A Geniza
is a room in which old and disused scrolls are kept; this
one had not been cleared out since it was built in 882 AD.
These finds were dwarfed in importance by finds in the
Judaean Desert. In 1947 an Arab shepherd boy threw a stone
into a cave and heard the breaking of pottery. On
investigating he found the first of the
Dead Sea Scrolls. Further
discoveries followed, and soon manuscripts had been found of
almost every Old Testament book, the exception being Esther.
The manuscripts were extremely close in text to the modern
Hebrew text of the Massoretes. One manuscript especially,
1QIsa, a complete scroll of the book of Isaiah, was
letter for letter the same as the modern equivalent. Other
scrolls contained minor variations, but these were of very
minor importance; changes in word order, the substitution of
a pronoun for a noun and such like. The variants found were,
in any case, already known from other sources.
A further source of information about the Hebrew text of
the Old Testament comes in the translations made of that
text. The oldest of these translations was the
Septuagint, made in Alexandria
between 285 and 246 BC, supposedly by seventy scholars. This
version, which is often designated by the letters
LXX (Roman numerals for 70),
was copied quite independently of the Hebrew Old Testament
and is thus an independent witness to its text. Complete
texts of it are available from the third century AD. Another
translation was made in about 130 AD by Aquila; this was a
much more literal translation of the Hebrew than the
Septuagint and is thus an even better textual witness. A
complete text of it was found in the Cairo Geniza.
Taken together these witnesses show that there is no
significant difference between the modern text of the Old
Testament and the ancient text of the time of Jesus or
The text of the Bible is as well established as the text
of any other book, and much better than the texts of other
books of its age. The few small variations in text do not
affect any belief of Christianity. We can trust the text of
the Bible to be accurate and to contain the teachings of
those who wrote it down.
The manuscripts also show that the Bible was written much
earlier than its critics would like to believe. The gospels,
in particular, must have been written within 20 years of