Accuracy in Apologetics
EA CULPA. That’s Latin for, “I’m an idiot” or something like that. I have a public announcement: I’ve been using old data. I’m fixing that problem though. Fellow apologist: you should too.
I have often quoted the stats for the manuscript evidence for the New Testament. It is monstrous. We have an ambarrasment of riches. We have far superior literary evidence for the reliability of the ancient copies for the New Testament than any other literary work of antiquity (think antiques – old – antiquity means the ancient period).
I’ve kept up on the tally for New Testament documentation. We now have nearly 6,000 ancient manuscripts in Greek that are used for producing a single translation of the New Testament. When you add in other languages that the New Testament was translated into, languages like Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Latin, the pile of ancient copies grows exponentially.
Here’s the problem. I’ve not kept up with new discoveries in manuscripts for the literary works outside the Bible for my comparisons. That could easily look like a sly move to skew the differences. That is in no way my intent. In doing a little pre work for a lecture today I read an article from 2013 that gives updated information in terms of the manuscript evidence for works outside the Bible for writers like Plato and Homer.
Long story short, the New Testament still stands heads and shoulders above any other ancient writings. The blind poet (or at least thought to be blind poet – however that works), Homer, is still the greatest source outside of Scripture for manuscript evidence. Older lists show that there is only about one-third of the evidence that there is today. Though the updated numbers don’t change anything, it is important for us to be accurate in our comparison.
An article for the Christian Research Institute gives this helpful statement:
Christians argue that if historians will consider an ancient document to have been accurately transmitted whose manuscripts are few and far between the date the autograph was penned and its earliest extant copy, then they should accept documents as accurately transmitted whose manuscripts are comparatively many and comparatively near their autographs. For many years Christian apologists have employed the bibliographical test to argue that the NT has, indeed, been accurately transmitted: the NT surpasses all other ancient documents in sheer number of manuscripts and the nearness of the date between the autographs and extant manuscripts.1
The trouble is that the numbers and dates that apologists use for other ancient documents to compare them to the NT are woefully out of date. Christian apologists must be careful to be accurate.
You can see a great illustration of the updated information here. Christians certainly don’t base their theology of Scripture over the tally count of manuscripts. And to be clear, the New Testament still stands in a league of its own in terms of the age and quantity of manuscripts. But we do need to stay up to date on the count of manuscripts for those ancient works we compare the Bible to.