No Apologizing

"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." 1 Peter 3:15

More reliable…Aristotle or the New Testament?


 In one of our previous posts we took a look at the time frame between the crucifixion and the writing of the New Testament.  What we found was that the timeline of the writing was no different than our current timeline of writing books about our recent history.  This is a standard that is acceptable to all historians.

Now that we can verify that the timeline is acceptable, can we verify that the words

Which is more reliable?

Which is more reliable?

 themselves are acceptable?

First it must be conceded that the original text of the New Testament (and Old Testament for that matter) do not exist.  However, there are a significant number of copies (manuscripts) that do.  This is a critical point.  Most atheist’s will argue that a lack of the original autographs indicates that there is no way we know that the words in the New Testament accurately represent the events they depict.  This argument is faulty because copies can give a gateway into what the original text said. 

Consider for a moment that someone (for whatever reason) wanted to copy this post.  Two days later…wordpress.com goes crazy, and this post is lost forever.  The only evidence that the original post existed would be the one copy made.  Now let’s expand that scenario.  Let’s say that 100 copies were made of my original post, and then wordpress.com crashes.  The only evidence of my original post is 100 copies made.

In both examples the original post has been destroyed, and all we have are copies of the original post.  Now, how can we determine which best preserved the text of the original post?  Some would answer that the one copy would be the best representation of the original because there is less chance for an error in the copying of the original post.  Theoretically you would be correct.  The less something is copied the less chance there is for error in the copy.  Realistically that argument cannot stand.  The premise with the argument is that the copy is correct.  But how can you tell?  You can’t.  You have nothing to compare the 1 copy to, to determine how faithful it was to the original that was destroyed.  In this case the 100 copies would be a more reliable source to see what the original post said.  The reason, you can compare 100 copies and see any variance.  For example, if 99 of the copies have the sentence “The only evidence of my original post is 100 copies made” and the 1 copy has “The only evidence of my post are the copies that are made” there is a high probability that the former was in the original. 

So the principle is simple, verification through sheer volume.

Consider the following statistics:

  Author Date Written Number of Copies Accuracy of Copies  
Plato 427-347 B.C. 7 —-  
Aristotle 384-322 B.C. 49 —-  
Homer (Iliad) 900 B.C. 643 95%  
NewTestament 1st Cent. A.D. (50-100 A.D. 5600 99.50%  
 

 

This is an incredible chart.  The New Testament has 5,600 copies…In Greek.  The “in Greek” is significant because the original text was written in Greek (common language of the day).  If we add copies from various languages such as Latin the total number of copies would go as high as 24,000.  That is 24,000 copies of the original documents, the original writings of the Apostles.  No other document in antiquity can claim such a volume.  Other famous writers of antiquity fail this test.  This is not to say that the copies of these other documents are inadequate or that the copies are wrong.  It is simply to say that you have much less quantity with which to verify its contents and, therefore, much less confidence in those copies. 

Consider Plato.  Plato is well known for his writing “The Republic”.  There are only 7 copies of the original.  How confident can one be that the translation we read of “The Republic” is the one that Plato wrote?  Confidence level has to be low because you only have 7 copies to compare against one another.  However, historically speaking, “The Republic” has been accepted as an accurate recording of Plato’s words.

Now consider Aristotle.  Aristotle is credited with making contributions to logic, metaphysics, biology, botany, politics, etc…  How confident can we be that what we read today represents what Aristotle actually wrote?  There are only 49 copies of Aristotle’s works.  Once again, historians easily accept the historicity and authority of the writings of Aristotle as many have dubbed him the “father of the field of logic”.  However, as compared to the New Testament, the confidence level has to be low.

Now consider the Greek poet Homer.  Homer is well known for his literary works such as “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”.  If we look specifically at the Iliad you will see that there are 643 copies of the original.  This allows for a fairly broad comparison and can create a high degree of confidence that the Iliad that we read today, is very similar to the original version.    

Finally consider the New Testament. The New Testament is a combination of several authors.  There are 5,600 copies of those books in their original language.  This allows historians to compare 1 copy with 5,599 other copies to see if it matches.  Based on this comparison, scholars have been able to identify a 94% word for word match of all of the copies.  To put this into context…there are 138,020 words in the New Testament.  All 5,600 match precisely for 129,738 words.  Pretty incredible?  This would leave 6% open to review for error.  Scholars state the 3% of the 6% can be attributed to misspellings, notes in the margins, and punctuation errors.  This would leave 3% open for review.  Scholars argue, (and I agree) that the 3% have no impact on the message being delivered – they are simply a similar statement with perhaps slightly different vocabulary and syntax.  It would be the same as the example given above (“The only evidence of my original post is 100 copies made” verses “The only evidence of my post are the copies that are made”).

What does this mean?  This means that the 5,600 copies of the originals are at least 97% consistent with one another.  This means, that on text evidence alone, that you can feel 97% – 99% sure that the words you read are exact representative of the original documents.

That makes the New Testament the most textually reliable document in ALL of antiquity.

This fact, taken with the historical accuracy spoken of in our previous post means you can have complete confidence that the story recounted in the New Testament is reliable – this should, in turn increase your confidence in its message.

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9 responses to “More reliable…Aristotle or the New Testament?

  1. NotAScientist January 21, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    “That makes the New Testament the most textually reliable document in ALL of antiquity.”

    However, stories about a man doing supernatural acts, no matter how reliably copied from one to the other, are no more believable than someone saying they were abducted by aliens today.

  2. Chris January 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Good presentation, men, and a much needed one. A couple of things to consider with the following example:

    For example, if 99 of the copies have the sentence “The only evidence of my original post is 100 copies made” and the 1 copy has “The only evidence of my post are the copies that are made” there is a high probability that the former was in the original.

    There could be inaccurate additions to the original as well. Also the number of copies does not necessarily equal the original. The number, the distribution, and the age of the copies factor in as well.

    Nevertheless, your main point is spot on: we are blessed by God’s providence to have an abundance of manuscript evidence for His infallible, revealed Word.

    • kcbob January 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      Chris, excellent observation. because of the spectrum that this argument involves I had to keep the argument narrow and precise. There absolutely could be a follow-up post on this that looked specifically at the date of the first copies. Again, The New Testament blows other documents out of the water when it comes to the age of the copies versus the original’s. Again to compare Aristotle, Homer, Plato, and the New Testament you would see the following…

      Author Date Written Approximate Time Span between original & copy

      Plato 427-347 B.C. 1200 yrs
      Aristotle 384-322 B.C. 1400
      Homer (Iliad) 900 B.C. 500 yrs
      New Testament 1st Cent. A.D. (50-100 A.D.) less than 100 years

      This drives up the accuracy of the New Testament because it can be placed within 100 years of the original. Again, this would lend credit to how reliable the copies are in regards to the original.

  3. Salinger1976 January 29, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Although you present a thorough and intelligent argument, I wonder about your sources. So, if there are 5,600 copies of the Bible in the original language, are those Bibles identical? Quite incredible because they were hand written. I love to see the Iliad in conversation, but don’t you think that you should be comparing these works to the Old Testament? If you really want a fair comparison, you should choose a work from the same time period of the N.T. Also, with your education I am sure that you are familiar with the contradictions in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Which version do you think is the “right” one?

    • kcbob January 30, 2011 at 9:46 pm

      Thanks for your questions.

      So, if there are 5,600 copies of the Bible in the original language, are those Bibles identical? Quite incredible because they were hand written.

      There are identical to 94%. 94% word for word match. This is beyond incredible, and enters into the realm of incredibly astonishing. 3% of the difference can be attributed to misspelled words, notes in the margin’s or what not. This only leaves about 3% open for review. Considering these were written by hand…incredible doesn’t come close to describing the accuracy in the transmission of the events of the New Testament.

      I love to see the Iliad in conversation, but don’t you think that you should be comparing these works to the Old Testament?

      The Iliad and the Old Testament are actually fairly comparable when it comes to some of the textual criticism. For example the first copy we have of the Iliad is approx. 400BC. There are appox 643 copies of the Iliad. With the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls we have been able to date several copies of the OT (Isaiah, Leviticus, etc…) as far back as 300 BC. There were 972 copies of these scrolls. Additionally, we have evidence that the OT was translated into Greek for greek speaking Jews who in lived in Alexandria. This translation is as early as 250BC. The Iliad has been credited as being 95% accurate to the words that Homer wrote. The versions of the OT we read today, were 99.9% accurate to the translations found in the dead sea scrolls. This is relevant because the dead sea scrolls were discovered from 1946 – 1956. A lot of Bibles were printed during that time frame. All of them were 99.9% accurate to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

      Also, with your education I am sure that you are familiar with the contradictions in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Which version do you think is the “right” one?

      I am familiar with some things that many people would call contradictions. I don’t see them as contradictions at all. When I read your comment I went and looked at a couple of websites for these “contradictions”. Some of them warrant discussion and can be explained, others are frivolous and absurd. To answer your question…all of them are the right one. I know you are busy, but if you get a chance let me know some of the contradictions. I would like the opportunity to research them and present an answer for you.

      BTW…Have you noticed every time you leave a message on this board…it is snowing or will snow?

      • kcbob January 30, 2011 at 10:02 pm

        Em reminded me about the sources. The sources I used are Survey books of the Old Testament, and New Testament. I used a website called CARM.org (A Christian Apologetics research website). While my sources are predominately Christian, there are very hardly any reputable historians that debate the number of manuscripts, and the consistency that they hold.

  4. Salinger1976 February 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I can not find any sources about the originals matching so I’m not going to bother debating. By the way, I read “The Iliad” as fiction, and I am not sure that Homer was one person or multiple people. I will say that it was hard to get through that book for my World Literature class.

    Yes the weather is bad when I post, that is when I have time to indulge in using my brain for other activities than homework.

  5. Pingback: Easter is a Myth? « No Apologizing

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