The Logic of Faith

(5) Manuscript Evidence


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 date.

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 Testament.
  • 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 (325 AD).

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.

Work When Written Earliest Copy Time Span Copies
Caesar's Gallic Wars 100-44 BC 900 AD 1,000 yrs 10
Plato's Tetralogies 427-347 BC 900 AD 1,200 yrs 7
Tacitus' Annals 100 AD 1100 AD 1,000 yrs 20
Pliny's Histories 61-113 AD 850 AD 750 yrs 7
Herodotus' History 480-425 BC 900 AD 1,300 yrs 8
New Testament 40-70 AD 180 AD 120 yrs 24,000

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 before.


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 Jesus' resurrection.

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