Manuscript Evidence: New Testament vs. Plato, Etc.


The verso of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from the Gospel of John; its most probable date is 117-138 AD, making it one of the earliest NT manuscript fragments. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

The following are exchanges from the combox for my paper, God, Empiricism, & Atheist Demands for “Evidence”, with new material added presently. My opponents’ words will be in green and blue. They are either atheist or agnostic.

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The following is a list of accounts written about Yeshua by His contemporaries: This concludes the list.

What we are left with then are the transcripts of oral accounts of re-re-re-translated stories generations removed from the purported events. I submit to you sir, that the courts would not consider those anecdotes evidentiary, particularly given the extraordinary nature of the claims they advance.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a judge that would even allow such material admitted at all, even as hearsay. Though if you held the trial deep enough in the South, you just might. ;)

I won’t be the first to point out that thousands of years from now, archaeologists may well unearth the remnants of a fallen New York City and a stash of Marvel comic books.

That would still hardly qualify Spiderman as a historical figure.

There is much more historical evidence about Jesus than about, say, Socrates and Plato (far more ancient and far better attested). So do you deny the existence of Socrates and Plato as well?

Socrates’ life was documented by three of his contemporaries: Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon. Again, Yeshua’s score remains zero.

Jesus’ life was documented by four of His contemporaries: Matthew, Peter (the source behind Mark), Luke, and John. Paul, who wrote most of the rest of the NT, encountered the risen Jesus.

Sheila C.: We have two things for Socrates that we don’t have for Jesus — first, contemporary accounts (written while Socrates was still alive), and second, critical accounts (plays written mocking Socrates by one of his critics). If Jesus had wanted to, he could easily have met this standard of evidence. We have contemporary writings from people living in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Oddly, they don’t mention any of the truly astounding things that would have been going on at the time. Not so much as a sentence. And we also don’t have a letter from Pontius Pilate, Herod, or Caiaphas saying, “This is what I think about this Jesus who’s been preaching. He definitely did the miracles attributed to him, but I think it’s by the power of the devil.” That would be GREAT historical evidence, but it isn’t available.

The Talmud refers to Jesus being a bastard, which is, of course, a skeptical take on the Virgin Birth. F. F. Bruce summarized how the Talmud described Jesus:

According to the earlier Rabbis whose opinions are recorded in these writings, Jesus of Nazareth was a transgressor in Israel, who practiced magic, scorned the words of the wise, led the people astray, and said he had lot come to destroy the law but to add to it. He was hanged on Passover Eve for heresy and misleading the people. His disciples, of whom five are named, healed the sick in his name.

It is clear that this is just such a portrayal of our Lord we might expect from those elements in the Pharisaic party which were opposed to Him. Some of the names by which He is called bear witness directly or indirectly to the Gospel record. The appellation Ha-Taluy (‘The Hanged One’) obviously refers to the manner of His death; another name given to Him, Ben-Pantera (‘Son of Pantera’), probably refers, not (as has sometimes been alleged) to a Roman soldier named Pantheras, but to the Christian belief in our Lord’s virgin birth, Pantera being corruption of the Greek parthenos (‘virgin’).’ This does not mean, of course, that all those who called Him by this name believed in His virgin birth.

And as for Plato, we have reams of writings he wrote himself. I’d love to read Jesus’ writings, but he wrote nothing himself.

It’s thought that the archetype of all the manuscripts of Aristophanes was written in the 4th or 5th c. AD. The best and earliest full manuscripts date from the 10th-11th c. AD. He died in c. 386 BC, so that is a spread of almost 1400 years. Xenophon manuscripts date at the very earliest from the 9th-10th c.: most several centuries after that. He died in c. 430 BC, making that a spread of over 1300 years, minimum.

The earliest (fragmented) manuscripts of Plato’s Dialogues date from the 2nd to 4th century AD. But the complete manuscripts date from about 900 AD. Plato died in 437 or 348 AD.

That’s quite a gap (some 1250 years). But no one doubts Plato’s or Socrates’ existence. Socrates, like Jesus, is not known to have written anything, either. Other people recorded his words (precisely as in the case of Jesus).  See a related paper, “Did Plato Exist?”

1200-1400 year gaps pose no problems for atheists! But the horrendous 60-70-year gap of the NT writings (i.e., when they were written) and a few more centuries at most for full manuscripts, cause a huge “problem” and make atheists doubt Jesus’ very existence, while never for a second doubting Socrates or Plato. It’s a massive double standard, and plain silly. But it makes about as much sense as anything else in atheism, I reckon . . . Dr. Richard M. Fales analyzes the massive differences in the comparative evidence:

Aristotle’s Ode to Poetics was written between 384 and 322 B.C. The earliest copy of this work dates A.D. 1100, and there are only forty-nine extant manuscripts. The gap between the original writing and the earliest copy is 1,400 years. There are only seven extant manuscripts of Plato’s Tetralogies, written 427–347 B.C. The earliest copy is A.D. 900—a gap of over 1,200 years. What about the New Testament? Jesus was crucified in A.D. 30. The New Testament was written between A.D. 48 and 95. The oldest manuscripts date to the last quarter of the first century, and the second oldest A.D. 125. This gives us a narrow gap of thirty-five to forty years from the originals written by the apostles. From the early centuries, we have some 5,300 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Altogether, including Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic, we have a whopping 24,633 texts of the ancient New Testament to confirm the wording of the Scriptures. So the bottom line is, there was no great period between the events of the New Testament and the New Testament writings. Nor is there a great time lapse between the original writings and the oldest copies.

With the great body of manuscript evidence, it can be proved, beyond a doubt, that the New Testament says exactly the same things today as it originally did nearly 2,000 years ago. Corroborating Writings. Critics also charge that there are no ancient writings about Jesus outside the New Testament. This is another ridiculous claim. Writings confirming His birth, ministry, death, and resurrection include Flavius Josephus (A.D. 93), the Babylonian Talmud (A.D. 70–200), Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan (approx. A.D. 100), the Annals of Tacitus (A.D. 115–117), Mara Bar Serapion (sometime after A.D. 73), and Suetonius’ Life of Claudius and Life of Nero (A.D. 120).

The great biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce, in his classic work, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?, sums up what we know:

The New Testament was complete, or substantially complete, about AD 100, the majority of the writings being in existence twenty to forty years before this. In this country a majority of modern scholars fix the dates of the four Gospels as follows: Matthew, c. 85-90; Mark, c. 65; Luke, c. 80-85; John, c. 90-100. I should be inclined to date the first three Gospels rather earlier: Mark shortly after AD 60, Luke between 60 and 70, and Matthew shortly after 70. One criterion which has special weight with me is the relation which these writings appear to bear to the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. My view of the matter is that Mark and Luke were written before this event, and Matthew not long afterwards. . . . 

At any rate, the time elapsing between the evangelic events and the writing of most of the New Testament books was, from the standpoint of historical research, satisfactorily short. For in assessing the trustworthiness of ancient historical writings, one of the most important questions is: How soon after the events took place were they recorded? . . . 

The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. And if the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt. It is a curious fact that historians have often been much readier to trust the New Testament records than have many theologians. Somehow or other, there are people who regard a ‘sacred book’ as ipso facto under suspicion, and demand much more corroborative evidence for such a work than they would for an ordinary secular or pagan writing From the viewpoint of the historian, the same standards must be applied to both. . . . 

There are in existence about 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in whole or in part. The best and most important of these go back to somewhere about AD 350, the two most important being the Codex Vaticanus, the chief treasure of the Vatican Library in Rome, and the well-known Codex Sinaiticus, which the British Government purchased from the Soviet Government for £100,000 on Christmas Day, 1933, and which is now the chief treasure of the British Museum. Two other important early MSS in this country are the Codex Alexandrinus, also in the British Museum, written in the fifth century, and the Codex Bezae:, in Cambridge University Library, written in the fifth or sixth century, and containing the Gospels and Acts in both Greek and Latin.

Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 BC) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC-AD 17) only thirty five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of has two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogue dc Oratoribus, Agricola, Gcrmania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals. . . .

To sum up, we may quote the verdict of the late Sir Frederic Kenyon, a scholar whose authority to make pronouncements on ancient MSS was second to none:

‘The interval then between the data of original. composition and the earliest extant evidence become so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.’

In a 2012 article about the earliest New Testament manuscripts, Daniel B. Wallace observed that “seven New Testament papyri had recently been discovered — six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first.” He said that there were now 18 manuscripts from the second century and one from the first, containing 43% of the New Testament. The first century fragment from Mark is regarded as a “certain” first century manuscript by the experts. It predates the previous earliest fragment from Mark by 100-150 years. See also the article, “The Earliest New Testament Manuscripts.”

The manuscript evidence and reliability and verification from archaeology of the NT all lead to the conclusion that we can be assured that we have the actual words of Jesus. Before we even get to the question of miracles, we have to deal with that.

This person, Jesus, existed, and said some pretty remarkable things. Foremost among these striking words was His claim to be God, which is so ubiquitous in many forms in the NT that it can’t possibly be denied or dismissed. The observer has to decide what to do with that. Then it becomes C. S. Lewis’ classic “trilemma”: the choices seem to boil down to “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic.” Jesus seems far too good and compelling of a figure to be a lowly liar. He seems far too psychologically healthy and sane in every way to be a lunatic. That leaves Lord: He was Whom He claimed to be. If one reaches that point, then the possibility of miracles (if not arbitrarily ruled out beforehand) is much more plausible. If indeed there is a God and if indeed He came down from heaven, then we would fully expect amazing things to happen, including miracles. And of course that is exactly what we get with Jesus. It all goes together. The Christian looks at all this and says in faith, “Yes; He is God! And God can easily do things like rise from the dead.” Etc. And that is the beginning — the very heart — of Christianity, in terms of a person’s allegiance to it. Jesus is always front and center, no matter how much atheists want to avoid Him, up to and including the ludicrous assertion that He didn’t exist at all.

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